Thursday, July 8, 2010

Townsend: " YANKEE WARHORSE: A Biography of Major General Peter J. Osterhaus "

[Yankee Warhorse: A Biography of Major General Peter J. Osterhaus by Mary Bobbitt Townsend (University of Missouri Press, 2010). Hardcover, 7 maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total: 227/283. ISBN: 978-0-8262-1875-9  $39.95]

As with the native variety, the quality of ethnic generals appointed by the Lincoln administration varied widely. Born in Rhine Province of mixed German-Dutch ancestry, Peter Joseph Osterhaus clearly proved to be more of a help than a hindrance to the Union military effort. Beginning with the first battle of Boonville, Missouri in 1861 and ending with the capture of Mobile, the German immigrant proved to be a solid, if unspectacular, regimental, brigade, division, and (briefly) corps commander. It is this military career that comprises the main thrust of Mary Bobbitt Townsend's Yankee Warhorse: A Biography of Major General Peter J. Osterhaus. Civil War biography written by descendants often rightly gives readers pause, and while Townsend, the general's great-great-granddaughter, does provide a generally celebratory account of her ancestor's service, she does offer criticism of Osterhaus when warranted.

Osterhaus's leadership and combat experience in the 1848-1849 revolutionary uprising in the German state of Baden, described briefly but very well by Townsend in an early chapter, allowed him to adjust quickly to military life and perform competently in the early fighting in the Trans-Mississippi, at places like Boonville, Wilson's Creek, and Pea Ridge. His results during the Vicksburg Campaign as a division commander were mixed, with some viewing his performances at Port Gibson and Champion Hill as indicative of an overcautious nature. While Townsend does give some credence to these views, she does make a determined effort to defuse the criticism. She puts forth some good points, but there really isn't much excuse for this failure to sweep away Confederate resistance on his front at Port Gibson. Similarly, at Champion Hill, it is difficult to conceive of any reasonable explanation for III Corps's inert stance with a battle raging nearby, although most of the blame surely lies with Osterhaus's superior John A. McClernand. Ironically, Townsend's best and most detailed rendering of Osterhaus's role in a single battle recounts one of his worst days, Ringgold Gap, where he was surprised and manhandled by Patrick Cleburne. However, his overall career made for a positive contribution to the Union's war effort, and Yankee Warhorse also delves into Osterhaus's role in the Atlanta Campaign and the March to the Sea, as well as the final blow at Mobile.

According to Townsend, little remains of Osterhaus's papers (a glance through the book's bibliography reveals only a single cache residing in the Missouri Historical Society at St. Louis), so we are left with relatively few personal insights. The author's contention that Osterhaus, compared to other high ranking ethnic officers, was unusually apolitical is thus difficult to assess. The bibliography itself is fairly extensive, but one would prefer that it be properly categorized. Some discussion of the German-language sources used might also have been enlightening.

Curiously, the general also might serve as a supporting example for historian Christian Keller's thesis that the Civil War was not a significant promoter of assimilation for the Germans. Osterhaus often spoke of himself as an outsider (but without resentful tone in his writings) and left the country soon after the war, living in France and Germany for the rest of his days. He died in Germany in the middle of the Great War at the age of 94, apparently finding little problem with Kaiser Wilhelm's militant autocracy and, to the end, fervently hoping for an American alliance with Germany rather than the more democratic Entente powers. On the other hand, perhaps failing health and dotage can account for this seemingly contradictory stand. An important figure in the battles and campaigns fought in the western and Trans-Mississippi theaters, Peter J. Osterhaus is certainly worthy of a modern reassessment, and Mary Townsend's solidly researched biography and detailed treatment of the German-American's military career is well worth reading.

Other Civil War Books and Authors reviews of U. of Missouri Press titles:
* General Sterling Price and the Confederacy (for Missouri History Museum)
* Thomas Ewing Jr.: Frontier Lawyer and Civil War General
* Man of Douglas, Man of Lincoln: The Political Odyssey of James Henry Lane
* Confederate Colonels: A Biographical Register
* Peacekeeping on the Plains: Army Operations in Bleeding Kansas
* Missouri's Confederate: Claiborne Fox Jackson and the Creation of Southern Identity in the Border West
* The Civil War's First Blood: Missouri, 1854-1861 (for Missouri Life)
* Key Command: Ulysses S. Grant's District of Cairo


  1. Missing from the sources are pertinent State and War Department records, and the Osterhaus Papers at the Stadtarchiv Koblenz, Germany. There are also tidbits in other manuscript collections.

    Osterhaus had political & personal connections, and he benefited from influence-peddling by the German-American lobby, and without it he almost certainly wouldn't have made it to full major general.


  2. Hi Stefan,
    I don't doubt other parties had at least something to do with it, although his record was certainly as solid as any Union MG. I seem to recall from the book that his MG commission was confirmed while Osterhaus was on (family?) leave, leading Sherman and others to accuse him of personal lobbying. I think the author explains the timing as a coincidence.

    I think you mentioned that German archive to me before, either by comment or email. I recall scanning the biblio for German locations, and don't remember seeing it in there either.

  3. I think, Osterhaus's connections were secondary to his performance on the battlefield.

    Sherman made a great fuss about Osterhaus's promotion to MG, unfairly accusing him of absenting himself for the purpose of lobbying. (Sherman must have known that this was not the case.)

    Osterhaus took leave, because "a change of climate" was "necessary to save life" (Special Field Order No. 65, 11 July 1864, HQ Army of the Tennessee), according to a surgeon's certificate.


  4. I enjoyed learning about this German-born General. Osterhaus returned to Germany because he needed the income after his business here failed and the diplomatic post was available.

    I agree with Earl J. Hess that it was a balanced work and not a one-sided view.


  5. I'm still researching Osterhaus's life and career and I came across a succession of petitions and letters written/signed by more or less influential people pushing the Koblenz native's claims for promotion...



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