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August Willich in the Civil War:
Heart of a Communist/Mind of a Prussian

by Mike Quigley
 

   He was also referred to as "The Reddest of the Red" and at a meeting at a Cincinnati German Workers Union Hall in the uproar on the execution of John Brown, August Willich exclaimed to his listeners, " Whet your sabers and nerve your arms for the day of retribution when Slavery and Democracy will be crushed in a common grave."  August Willich considered himself a militant proletarian communist but expressed his reservations about the doctrine of relentless class struggle. Thus his personal duels with Karl Marx led him to be called a "Communist with a Heart".

   August Willich had an unlikely background as a communist. His last real name was von Willich. His father was an officer in the Prussian army. He was born in Braunsberg, Prussia in 1810. Young August as part of the elite Junker class entered the prestigious military academy of Potsdam at the age of 12 and by 15 was an ensign in the Prussian army. By 21, he was captain in the artillery with a promising career in what many military historians consider the finest army in the 19th century. While in the Prussian army, however, Willich took the lead of a group of officers interested in reading and discussing forbidden books. His republican political ideas caught the eyes of his superior officers, and he faced court martial.  He thus resigned his commission and took up the trade of a carpenter (to demonstrate his commitment to the proletariat). In the revolution of 1848/49, he led a scratch force composed of armed workers from the Baden provisional republican government called "Willich's Free Corps" which temporarily checked the advance of the elite Prussian army. They flew a "Red" flag of the workers revolution, the first time in history. Still defeat was inevitable and like Hecker and Schurz, he sought exile first in Switzerland and eventually to America. He settled in Cincinnati with its large German population (often referred to as "the City over the Rhine") and became editor of the Republikaner, a German-language newspaper. Undaunted by the middle-class respectability of the German community, he used his newspaper editorials to promote socialism, denounce Catholicism, and criticize all organized religions. In its general political stance, however, the Republikaner backed Republican candidates and policies in Ohio, first Fremont and then Lincoln.

   With the firing on Fort Sumter, over a thousand German volunteers joined in 24 hours. August Willich may have said it best when he replied, "We will show them what patriotic German can do.". The regiment would be later designated the 9th Ohio or nicknamed "Die Nuner". Due to political considerations August Willich was not made the colonel of the regiment but rather a prominent lawyer in Cincinnati named Robert L. McCook was given the commission. While McCook was made colonel he had the intelligence to make August Willich the de facto colonel , while he spent most of his time mastering administrative duties and studying "Hardee's Tactics". McCook later exclaimed he was , "just the clerk for a thousand Dutchman". Though August Willich may have been a "Communist with a Heart"; he had the mind of a Prussian officer and trained them in Prussian tactics of three rank advancing fire lines. His unique concern for his men earned the nickname "Papa". Governor Oliver P. Morton of Indiana had great admiration for Willich. He offered him colonel's commission of a German unit being formed in Indiana or designated the 32nd Indiana in August 1861. "Papa" Willich accepted the commission and the regiment was quickly formed and likewise trained in Prussian infantry fire and maneuver tactics combined with Prussian bugle calls. When Kentucky's neutrality came to an end, the 32nd Indiana was given the assignment of building a pontoon bridge across the Green River so that troops could stand guard on the other side to ward off any Confederate attack while the railroad bridge was being repaired. On December 17, 1861 a Confederate force of 1,300 attacked this detachment of less than 500 men. The battle was known as Rowlett's Station. The combined force of Confederate infantry, cavalry, and artillery which included Terry's Texas Rangers, bored down on this out manned detachment of German infantry. During the hour long engagement in which they had to form a square to repel a cavalry attack, the Confederates were driven back and the colonel of Terry's Texas Rangers was killed. For a week, northern newspapers wrote glowing accounts of the battle, and August Willich and the 32nd Indiana for a moment became national heroes.

   During the winter of 61/62, Willich had brick ovens built and his men had freshly baked bread every day. This kept up the morale of the 32nd Indiana. It would be more than a year before other Union commanders would discover this morale building value of daily fresh bread. August Willich also kept the 32nd Ind busy by building special wagons for the regiment. The wagons carried planking, and when a river needed crossing, they removed the wheels and the wagon beds became boats over which the planking was laid to form a pontoon bridge. After the river was crossed, the planking was taken up and put back on the wagon beds ready to be used for the next crossing. Because of jurisdictional jealousy on part of a Michigan engineering unit, Willich was ordered to discontinue his pioneering work.

   On April 5, 1862, the 32nd Indiana and the other regiments in Buell's army were twenty miles from Savannah, Tn. when the battle of Shiloh began. Rumor spread that the noise heard in the distance was thunder. But one soldier wrote, "Colonel Willich of the 32nd Indiana was seen to dig a small hole in the ground with his sword and lie down with his ear over it." Then Willich informed everybody that they were hearing sounds of battle not thunder. In WWII, German officers in the Eastern front would likewise put their "ears to the ground" to detect advancing Soviet armor columns.

   After a force march, they reached Savannah by 11:00 PM and had to wait until morning to be ferried to Pittsburgh Landing. As they boarded the boat, John L Roe, August Willich ordered them to play the Arbiter (Workers) Marseillaise. It is the same inspirational tune as Rouget' De Lisle's Marseillaise only the lyrics had changed in which legend says it was sung by the men as they boarded the boat. Part of the lyrics are as follows: Let's start to the tune of the Marseillaise, lets's start a bright new song! Sing it as a reveille for the new revolution! The new revolution! The new one, that soon breaks with sword and spear the last chair don't sing it for the old, half hearted one, The new, whole one only counts for us! The new rebellion! The whole rebellion! March! March! March! March! March! Even it were to death! The battle of Shiloh on the second day raged with renewed fury. The Confederates attacked units under the division command of Major General Lew Wallace (later to be author of Ben Hur fame). As some of his regiments were being driven back by this attack, he described what happened and wrote that his retreating regiments reminded him: "Of blackbirds in their migratory full flight. I looked at them then behind us in which my supporting force had been lost. Then at the last moment, it seemed, from the corner of the field in the south of the body began to file out of the forest. Who was it? Friend or foe?" "Shortly the strangers gave me a sight of their flag, at which my heart gave a great leap, for though the glasses I could see the stars and stripes in the dark-blue union and I confess to having forgotten everything else so intent was I watching the upcoming strangers." "They were but a regiment, yet at sight of them the enemy halted, about faced and returned to his position in the woods. Then he stuck out with a fire so lively that the newcomers halted and showed signs of distress. Then an officer rode swiftly around their left flank and stopped when in the front of them, his back to the enemy. What he said, I could not hear, but from the motions of his men he was putting them through the manual of arms-notwithstanding some of them were dropping in the ranks. Taken all in all, that I think was the most audacious thing that came under my observation during the war. The effect was magical. The colonel returned to his post...and the regiment steadied as if on parade and actually entered the woods...I dispatched an orderly to the colonel of the unknown regiment, with my compliments, and asking his name, 'August Willich, of the Thirty-Second Indiana volunteers' was the reply it brought me."(3) August Willich and the 32nd Indiana charging the woods furnished the model for a in scene Ben Hur. Willich is disguised as the majestic figure of Valerius Gratus, the imperial governor of Judea as he marches his soldiers into Jerusalem amid the jeers and insults of the Jews. The hisses and insults are the metaphor of the Confederate bullets pouring into the 32nd Indiana.

   His conduct at Shiloh earned him promotion to rank of brigadier general and command of the brigade in his old regiment. Henry Von Treba, another former officer from the Prussian army, was promoted to be the 32nd Indiana's colonel.

   At the battle of Stone's River, Brig. Gen. Willich was lightly wounded and captured as his brigade was forced back before they checked the Confederate advance. He spent time in Libby prison before being paroled and returned to his command.

   During the Tullahoma Campaign in late June 1863 , General Willich faced the formidable task of breaking through a pass known as "Liberty Gap" defended by a brigade of "Stonewall of the West" Patrick Cleburne. Rather than assault this fortified veteran force frontally, Willich deployed one regiment to go up the less defended slopes (using bugle calls to direct the advance) and then attacked the Confederates in the flank. The two regiments of Brig. General. St John R. Liddel's brigade getting the worst of it and had to withdraw. Praise was showered on Willich but he shrugged off the accolades and praised his men of the 32nd Indiana and the 89th Illinois.

   After the battle of Liberty Gap, Willich marched his brigade to Belfonte, Tennessee, and camped there on August 20, 1862. There he learned that Colonel Henry von Treba had died at his home in Arcola, Illinois. He named the camping place "Camp von Treba" to honor the memory of the second colonel of the 32nd Indiana.

   August Willich's brigade would be heavily engaged at Chickamauga. On September 19th, 1863, the German soldiers of the 32nd Indiana using their patent tactic of firing while advancing drove the Confederates back. Willich would have gone farther if he had other supporting troops. Willich's brigade retired to the main Federal position and continued to hold the left flank of the Federal line during the following day as General Thomas made his stand at Snodgrass Hill.

   Willich's brigade would lead its charge to glory on Missionary Ridge on November 25, 1863. The new commander of the 32nd Indian Lt. Col Francis Erdelmeyer tells the story:

"Before the order was given to advance upon the rifle pits at the foot of the ridge, Willich's Brigade held the position on Orchard Knob. On the signal of six guns the Brigade moved forward. The 32nd held the right in the second line of battle. The ground in our front was one clear field and soon we got in the reach of the enemy's fire. The line moved double quick. Arriving at the rifle pits the troops dropped behind the little earthworks which were an excellent range target for the enemies artillery and infantry fire. We then and there lost several men amongst which was Major Jacob Glass of the 32nd. Seeing the futility of staying in such a position with no chance of returning fire, I called the attention of Gen. Willich's side-de-camp Lt. McGrath and Col. Askew of the 15th Ohio, which was in the first line of battle. As the 15th Ohio and 32nd Indiana really laid on top of each other, I told them there was no cover this side of the Ridge, and I proposed to move on the hill for protection. Both seeing the condition as I did, I ordered my regiment forward. We soon were out of range of fire and as every other command did likewise, we started up the Ridge in great earnest. On going up the regiment grouped themselves with their colors, so every regiment formed in a V-shape with the colors in front. The 32nd took the right of the Brigade, the 15th Ohio to my left and the 49th Ohio the next. Over half way up we crossed a road running north ascending the Ridge. Myself and many officers and men lay under the bank of this road trying to rest and gain our breath from the exhausting strain of climbing. Laying there back to the hill, I noticed the formation of the ground. It looked like a trough or mold. We were on the south wall of it and there was a depression to the north and a north wall some distance away. I could plainly see our Brigade hanging and scrambling up the Ridge some fifty feet below. I could see Gen Willich walking back and forth and swinging his cap in his hand. Forward we went again. On the next rest halfway from this summit my color sergeant fell with a ball in his forehead. At this point was sharp fighting, but we continued to rush on and reached the Ridge where two pieces of artillery were located. Halting a moment for breath and to fix bayonets my men rushed over the rifle pit, grappling for the guns. The enemy disappeared down the hill.5 Sergeant Samuel C. McKirahan of Company F, 15th Ohio recalled: "Of course we had jollification when General Willich came up. With hat in hand, as usual, and laughing he said, 'Look! As I vas coming up the hill I saw a son-of-a-gun stopped behind a stump and I jumped on him and kicked him, and see, I broke all my spurs.'"5 Moments later two other members of the 15th Ohio, Corporal Washington J. Vance, Co. K and Private Joseph C. McColley, Co. G rode up on two captured artillery horses and halted where Willich was surrounded by men of his brigade, "My poys, you kills me mit joy," he exclaimed. "You kills me mit joy!"

   At the start of the Atlanta campaign in the spring of 1864, General Sherman ordered that no alcoholic beverages would be provided to the men in the upcoming campaign. General Willich personally went to General Sherman and told him that by not allowing the 32nd Indiana to have their beer ration would seriously deteriorate their moral. General Sherman granted his request.

   At Resaca, General Willich was seriously wounded and spent the rest of the war performing administrative duties in the Cincinnati military district. After the war Captain William Docke of the 24th Illinois (Colonel Hecker's first regiment) wrote:" it may be safely said that the great host of the subordinate commanders and troops of the German part of our armies that they were true as steel both the 9th Ohio and the 32nd Indiana could not be more perfect and the excellent conduct of these two regiment alone shows sufficiently that like the noble Steuben and heroic Mulenburg of revolutionary fame, one can be just as brave as an America soldier in Luther's German as in the best of King's English."

   After the war, hostilities between France and Germany would surface a few years afterwards. While was visiting Germany August Willich almost 60 years old would offer his military services to his former adversaries Count Otto von Bismarck and the King of Prussia. They turned his offer down due partly to his age (Marshall Blucher of Waterloo fame was 72 years old when he beat Napoleon) and his political beliefs. He then began to study philosophy at the University of Berlin, but his heart was in his adopted country. He returned to America and settled down in the small town of St. Marys, Ohio, at the invitation of an old comrade-in-arms, Major Charles Hipp. Living alone in a boarding house, but enjoying a peaceful life in a community that regarded him with the same affection once demonstrated by his troops, "Papa" Willich lived out his days. Always active intellectually, he traded his Marxism and political debates for literature and organized among the St. Mary's citizens a Shakespeare Club.

   To be honest, I personally find him one of the most compelling figures of that era. A brilliant man who had all the rank and privileges one could offer in his aristocratic society yet somehow believed in principals far different than the social/economic structure of his time. One can truly say in August Willich's case that the real rebels did not wear gray after all!

 

 Sources:

(1)"The Spirit of 1848 German Immigrants, Labor Conflict, and the Coming of the Civil War" by Bruce Levine, University of Illinois Press, 1992

(2) "Melting Pot Soldiers The Union Ethnic Regiments" by William L. Burton, Fordham University Press, 1998

(3) "Willich's Thirty Second Indiana Volunteers" by James Burnerr, Cincinnati Historical Society, 1979

(4) "Six Armies in Tennessee The Chickamauga and Chattanooga Campaigns" by Steven E. Woodworth, University of Nebraska Press, 1998

(5) "Echos of Battle, The Struggle for Chattanooga" by Richard A. Baumgartner, Blue Acorn Press, 1996

(6) "The Germans in the American Civil War" by Wilhelm Kaufmann published in 1911 reprinted in English by John Kallman Publishers, 1999