Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Review - "Radical Warrior: August Willich's Journey from German Revolutionary to Union General" by David Dixon

[Radical Warrior: August Willich's Journey from German Revolutionary to Union General by David T. Dixon (University of Tennessee Press, 2020). Hardcover, maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:x,256/321. ISBN:978-1-62190-602-5. $45]

Among the many leaders of failed 1848-49 revolutions in the southwestern German states who later immigrated to America and became Union generals, ex-Prussian army officer Johann August Ernst von Willich was one of the most inspirational and talented military commanders. Considerably older at age fifty than comrades Carl Schurz, Franz Sigel, Peter Osterhaus, and others were at the beginning of the American Civil War, Willich also lacked the language skills, political acumen, and social connections that might have vaulted him straightaway to higher rank in the Union Army. Nevertheless, he forged an impressive combat record as regimental officer and brigade commander in the western theater, first with the Army of Ohio and later the Army of the Cumberland. Though certainly a familiar officer to well-read students of western heartland battles and campaigns, Willich remains a relatively obscure figure to most Civil War readers. Bringing fresh attention to Willich's life and military career, David Dixon's new biography Radical Warrior: August Willich's Journey from German Revolutionary to Union General firmly reestablishes Willich's historical status as a major leader of the German Forty-Eighters and one of the best Union brigade commanders in the West. 

Born in 1810 into a family of minor Prussian nobility, Willich took to republican views early in life, an ideological outlook that landed him in frequent trouble as a young officer in the conservative Prussian Army. After being allowed to resign from the army, he renounced his social pedigree and fully embraced working class causes that included the overthrow of monarchical government and the end of religious influence on society. Taking advantage of French, German, and Dutch archives, Dixon's book explores in great detail Willich's command-level involvement in the German uprisings (all of which were crushed) along with his activities while exiled in France, Switzerland, and England. Also discussed are the relationships Willich developed with other rebel leaders who would become major political and military figures in Civil War-era America. The bitterly intense rivalry he developed with fellow communist leaders Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels is a major focus of these sections. Willich's more extreme version of revolutionary zeal (he favored immediate violent revolution over gradual reform) clashed with Marx and Engels as both factions sought to control the international Communist League based in London. To the credit of no one involved, their opposition to each other extended to slander, duels, scandal mongering, and other libelous character assaults.

Fed up with the political situation in Europe (he was particularly incensed by the end of France's Second Republic and rise of Napoleon III), Willich sailed to New York, where he was greeted by thousands of admirers. He eventually settled into Cincinnati's German community and worked as a pro-labor newspaper editor. Though he generally toned down his extremism for the American audience, Willich still advocated replacement of the U.S. Constitution and political system in favor of rule by trade unions. Just how much he realized the folly of that is unknown, and his intense cultural chauvinism (like many German American intellectuals, he believed American society needed superior German culture, education, and ethical development to fully realize its potential) probably endeared himself little to his native-born neighbors. As fervently antislavery as most German Americans of the Middle Border, Willich denounced southern secession and enthusiastically sought a Union Army commission at the outbreak of the American Civil War.

As expected, Willich's Civil War career is recounted and analyzed at length in the book. Willich first distinguished himself as major of the 9th Ohio during the 1861 West Virginia Campaign, but it was his adroit handling of the 32nd Indiana at the small Kentucky battle of Rowlett's Station where Colonel Willich really attracted the attention of peers and superiors alike. During the second day of the Battle of Shiloh, Willich's regiment steadied the Union center after a Confederate counterattack. It was at that moment when he achieved notoriety for the unusual means he employed for calming his regiment (during a skittish moment he ordered his men to perform the manual of arms under fire). Promoted to brigadier general, Willich was present at Perrville, but his brigade was overrun (and Willich himself captured) at Stones River. Returning to the army after exchange, he played a key role during the Tullahoma Campaign at Liberty Gap, did much to help hold the Union left at Chickamauga, and pierced the enemy center at Chattanooga. The following year at the Battle of Resaca, the front-line fighting general's luck finally ran out when he received a crippling arm wound. Upon recovery, Willich served in rear area districts for much of the balance of the war but did finally conclude his Civil War career in a more active capacity in Texas.

During the war, Willich tried to improve upon (at least as he saw it) how things were run in the Union Army. Of the opinion early in the war that the army was ill-equipped to cross rivers expeditiously, Willich organized a dedicated pioneer detachment from the ranks of his regiment and sketched out a new pontoon boat design that was never approved for general use. His most significant innovation was his "advance firing" tactical formation that he drilled his regiment and later his brigade into becoming proficient at performing in battle. Having a background bias toward columnar formations, Willich wanted his regiments to form in four successive lines, the aim being the maintenance of continuous fire through passage of lines from rear to front. One can imagine that this would not work well in every situation (though, as demonstrated at Chickamauga, it could be readily converted to "retreat firing"), Dixon persuasively describes the effectiveness of advance firing when implemented on the tactical offensive during several Civil War battles. On the other hand, though the author does not go into the matter, one wonders whether Willich's columnar deployments had any additional hand in the high casualties that his commands so often suffered in battle.

Returning to Cincinnati after mustering out, Willich, who was always vocally opposed to special privileges being conferred by government upon any particular class or group, nevertheless accepted a highly lucrative patronage position as county auditor. Around the same time that political scandal arose over his handling of the job, Willich returned to Europe just in time to be caught up in the war fever between France and Prussia. With the German nationalist in him overriding his decades-long opposition to the Prussian monarchy, Willich volunteered to serve in the Prussian Army but was rejected. He nevertheless stayed to earn a degree from the University of Berlin before returning to the United States. Disillusioned with the Republican Party, Willich reverted back to supporting losing political causes (first with the Liberal Republicans and then the even less successful People's Party). Subsequently distancing himself from Ohio politics, he retired in modest security before passing away in 1878.

In David Dixon's Radical Warrior, August Willich has finally been accorded a biographical treatment commensurate with his significance to European and American military and political history. The book represents a notable contribution to the transnational history of the American Civil War that has become one of the most rapidly growing segments of the scholarly literature. Recommended.

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