David Dixon Discusses August Willich

    Dan Masters' Civil War Chronicles is proud to feature an interview with author David Dixon who discusses in his new book one of the more fascinating characters who served in the Army of the Cumberland, Brigadier General August Willich. Born into a noble family in Germany in 1810, Willich trained under Carl von Clausewitz and served as an officer in the Prussian army. Willich became an early proponent of Communism, and left his career in the army to dedicate his life to social justice. He was an important leader in the failed 1848 revolution in Germany, and by the 1850s he had moved to the United States and became a newspaper editor in Cincinnati, Ohio. Dixon's new book entitled Radical Warrior: August Willich's Journey from German Revolutionary to Union General (University of Tennessee Press, 311 pp., 2020) examines Willich's extraordinary life in detail with a particular focus on his life as a revolutionary in Europe and then his services in the Civil War. 

General August Willich

    A study of Willich's Civil War service held particular interest for me because I had two family members that served in his brigade during the Civil War: a great-great-great uncle Isaac Stratton of the 39th Indiana Infantry and my wife's great-great-great grandfather George Saul who served in the 49th Ohio Infantry. Reading Willich's story allowed me to better understand their story.  That said, Dixon has produced a truly fine addition to the literature of the Army of the Cumberland. The in-depth, thorough, and pain-staking research is evident throughout the text. Dixon draws heavily from German language sources (no easy task given the Fraktur print that requires a rubric to decipher) and the thrust of the book is more about how Willich pursued his thirst for effecting social change through two continents as opposed to just a straight biography of a Civil War general. 

    Although the initial chapters regarding his time in Europe have a decidedly slower pace than the chapters covering the Civil War, the narrative flows well.  Radical Warrior was written with an academic audience in mind and that more formal approach in this reviewer's opinion detracted a bit from my enjoyment of the book. As Mr. Dixon explained, "Since this was a university press book and an opportunity to help illustrate broader themes about the Civil War as part of a global human rights revolution for social, political, and economic justice, I chose the more formal approach." As an author, I appreciate the dilemma. I'd caution the reader against skipping those initial chapters and just jumping to Cincinnati in 1861 and tackling the Civil war service portion of the book; each chapter is a building block towards the next and to truly understand August Willich's approach to leadership, you have to develop some understanding of his life prior to 1861. He was more than 50 years old before he put on the blue uniform, and had lived a very full life before going off to fight our Civil War. Take a few nights to read and digest his revolutionary period, and you will much better appreciate how he managed his command during the Civil War. My knowledge of 19th century European politics was sketchy at best, and Dixon's book helped introduce me to the boiling cauldron of ideas that characterized European affairs in that era. 

    Radical Warrior features in-depth analyses of Willich's role at such major western theater battles as Shiloh, Stones River, Chickamauga, and Missionary Ridge and is a worthy addition to the literature of those conflicts. I think the Civil war chapters are the strongest in the book, particularly the chapter that covers Liberty Gap and Chickamauga. Other highlights in the book include well-executed maps by Hal Jespersen covering Willich's major battles [Confession: Hal has provided maps for several of my Civil War books and Dave introduced me to Hal a few years ago, so I may be slightly biased.] Another addition that I think really set the book apart was the inclusion of images drawn by Adolph Metzner who served in the 32nd Indiana Infantry during the war. Metzner's drawings and watercolors are featured throughout this post and can be accessed through the Library of Congress here. Metzner served with Willich through much of the war so we can see through Metzner's at-times whimsical eye some slices of life in the Army of the Cumberland. Radical Warrior features superb high-quality, in-depth research, intriguing content, and a presentation pleasing to the eye. I walked away from Radical Warrior having enjoyed the experience and having learned much about this fascinating 19th century radical. 

Colonel Willich at left leading staff of 32nd Indiana in the war's early days

An Interview with David Dixon

The blog questions are in blue; Mr. Dixon's answers in black. 

1.     Your last two books have focused on “B-List” Civil War characters; what was it about August Willich’s story that initially triggered your interest in crafting a book length study?

A.   Willich met my minimum criteria as an important second tier Civil War figure that had a compelling life story, was connected to important events and people, and lacked a full-length biography. What really hooked me on him, however, was the fact that he sacrificed so much: abandoning his noble status, career, family, and eventually his homeland to dedicate the rest of his adult life so completely to social justice causes. I find that constancy and selflessness remarkable.

2.     It is clear from the book that your research drew heavily from German-language sources; what types of special challenges did this pose? Any major learnings to pass on to other students of the war in utilizing these sources?

A.   The fact that most students of the Civil War have no facility with the German language in archaic handwriting script or Fraktur print creates huge obstacles that have inhibited German American scholarship. I collaborated with numerous fluent German speakers, most notably a librarian and volunteer translator in Germany and a German PhD candidate doing his dissertation on Willich to help me identify and understand primary and secondary sources critical to my study. Without these research partnerships, I would have abandoned the project early on. My advice: form relationships with colleagues and share your research to help everyone succeed with these challenging sources.

3.     August Willich seemed to have an eye for the ladies: your book details instances of him making the moves on Karl Marx’s wife and then engaging in a relationship with an African-American woman in the U.S. Was he what a 19th century person would call a “rake,” i.e. another Earl Van Dorn?

A.   Actually, no, Willich was no Don Juan; in fact, he was mostly a self-styled ascetic who shunned romantic relationships for fear they would distract him from his mission in life. That said, he was a charismatic and personable man who could hardly contain his libido 100% of the time. His brief romance with a woman of color is the only instance I could find of any sexual relationship that could be counted in months, rather than weeks, and even that one did not last long, or apparently result in a long-term commitment.

4.     August Willich’s worst day of the war was the day he was captured at Stones River. In the text, you mention that while he was imprisoned, he mulled over the mistakes that were made that morning. What specifically did Willich think should have been done on December 31, 1862 that was not done?

A.   Willich was convinced that his division’s alignment was faulty and made numerous overnight protests to Brig. Gen. Richard W. Johnson to no avail. He had his brigade up in arms at 4:00 a.m. only to receive orders to cook breakfast a few hours later. If Willich had trusted his instincts like Phil Sheridan did, instead of giving in to the puzzling complacency filtering down from Alexander McCook through Johnsons to his brigadiers, Willich and Kirk would have been in a higher state of readiness. That said, the Confederate buildup was done with great stealth and their overwhelming numbers probably would have overrun the Union right in any case.

Camp scene of the 32nd Indiana in January 1863

5.     Willich’s innovation of the advance firing technique is intriguing. Did it see more widespread use after his demonstration of its effectiveness at Liberty Gap?

A.   Yes, Willich expanded the use of advanced firing to the brigade level at Chickamauga and there are instances known of at least two regiments in Harker’s brigade, the 125th and 64th Ohio, using this technique in that battle. The practice disappears from known sources after the battle and some experts believe that the transition in leadership from Rosecrans to Thomas accounts for that, as Thomas was less receptive to tactics that deviated from the standard manuals.

6.     Willich’s best days of the war were at Liberty Gap and Chickamauga. Could you describe a bit about his contributions on those days?

A.   Both battles show Willich at his tactical best. He was poised in battle, anticipated well, and most importantly, thought well on his feet. He was self-assured and acted quickly and aggressively. At Liberty Gap, he overcame strong defensive positions with creative flanking maneuvers, but the Union also had overwhelming numbers in that small battle. His performance at Chickamauga involved four distinct engagements: two offensive and two defensive. His service in helping to cover the retreat of two divisions at the Kelly Field was extraordinary.

7.     Despite Willich’s competence, he was relegated to brigade command for much of the war. What do you think attributed to that? Was it his radicalism, or inability to play army politics?

A.   We have no evidence that Willich ever aspired to higher command; in fact, his best friend stated that he was indifferent to promotion. Thomas and Rosecrans urged his promotion after Chickamauga and Lincoln supported it. By the end of 1864, however, there was a bit of a logjam in the ranks of those aspiring to become major generals. Unlike Schurz and Sigel, Willich eschewed self-promotion and hated army politics. My best speculation is that since Willich loved leading from the front and being close to the action, a division command may not have appealed to him, nor leveraged his best talents.

8.     Willich served under General Alexander McCook for most of his active service during the war, and the colonel of the 9th Ohio was Robert McCook. Any insights on Willich’s relationship with the McCook family and how did he view Alexander?

A.   It was no secret that Willich thought he should command the 9th Ohio when it was formed, but he was outvoted six to four. Robert McCook was the law partner of Willich’s best friend, Johann Stallo, who was convinced that McCook’s political connections would serve the new regiment better in the short term in competing for scarce military equipment and arms. Willich did not express any distaste for Alexander McCook, but his men in the 32nd Indiana and others under his command called him “chucklehead,” made fun of his rotund physique, and demeaned his lack of military acumen. Whenever Willich saw shortcomings in his commanders, he was quick to express his disagreements with them privately, but to my knowledge, only rarely disparaged them publicly; and when he did, soon fell in line as obedience to superiors had been drilled into him since his childhood days in Prussian military school.

Probably my favorite image of the Metzner collection: General Willich stands holding a cigar while holding his right hand over the fire in front of his headquarters tent while his pet raccoon perches upon his shoulder. Note the bugle hanging in his tent; the men of his "Bugle Brigade" may not have shared the General's affinity for bugle calls, but they certainly respected their tough if quirky commander. 

9.     Each of your last two books have focused on Ohioans serving in the Army of the Cumberland. Having studied a bit of the army and its service, what strikes you as its best and worst qualities? What did the AofC do right, and where did it fall short?

A.   That’s a broad question perhaps better answered by Gerry Prokopowicz or another A of C expert. From my narrow viewpoint, I would say that the A of C, particularly under Rosecrans, was innovative in organization and open to new tactical ideas; both environmental aspects that helped someone like Willich thrive. On the other hand, Rosecrans’s understanding of the importance of logistics and supplies made him slower to act. I am impressed by the overall quality of this army’s leadership, particularly at the division and brigade level, with some notable exceptions, of course.

10. The contribution of Germans in the Civil War appears to be gaining more scholarly research in the past few years. What struck you as unique or especially enlightening about the German experience during the war?

A.   Most Civil War enthusiasts know that German Americans enlisted early and in larger numbers than any other immigrant group. The more interesting storyline for me, however, was the motives of many of their key recruiters. Radical Forty-Eighters like August Willich saw the war not as a sectional conflict to preserve the Federal Union, but as part of a much larger, global revolution for human rights and republican government.

11. The Army of the Cumberland was in some respects an army with an international character: it had Irish, German, and even Scandinavian regiments within its ranks. How did the ‘regular American’ regiments view these ethnic regiments, and did those perceptions ever have an impact on the battlefield?

A. Anti-immigrant sentiment and nativism was an issue that all ethnic regiments had to deal with throughout the war. I found such prejudices much stronger in the Eastern Theatre than in the West; yet ethnic regiments seemed to get more noncombat assignments under certain commanders than their native born comrades and this rankled the Germans in particular, who felt with much justification that they were often more experienced,  better trained, and more fit soldiers. As the war dragged on in the West, however, immigrants proved their mettle on the battlefield and nativist prejudice diminished to a degree.

12. General Willich’s postwar career was marred by political scandal, like General Grant’s. Why do you think someone as successful with military life as Willich could not translate that to success in civilian life?

A.   Willich lacked the talent for politics. He did not believe in compromise and shunned self-promotion. His close friends cajoled him running for office. His disinterest and incompetence in a job that was a civil service boondoggle created an opening for his enemies to attempt to destroy his reputation under the guise of reform. He was embarrassed by the fiasco and ended up giving much of the money he made in office to friends, while continuing to live in a humble boarding house room for the rest of his life. His reputation, however, was not seriously damaged and thousands attended his funeral.

Willich atop his horse directing his bugler to "Blow Fight!" during the Battle of Liberty Gap, Tennessee on June 25, 1863. It was at Liberty Gap that Willich first used his advance firing tactic which proved remarkably effective on that field. The General had been captured at the Battle of Stones River and spent nearly five months as a prisoner of war at "Hotel-de-Libby." The idle time gave Willich the opportunity to brood over the mistakes of Stones River and it was during this time that he developed this tactical concept. 

13. General Willich certainly had a poor opinion of organized religion, feelings that were at variance with the vast majority of his men. How did he interact with regimental chaplains, etc. while in the service? Was he vocally opposed to religion or did he just let it go?

A.   There is good evidence to show that many men in Willich’s German 32nd Indiana shared his distaste for clerics. Many were freethinkers, humanists, or even atheists. Chaplains were “useless baggage” in an army, as far as Willich was concerned. Once he assumed brigade command, Willich tempered his comments demeaning organized religion, advocating socialism, and other radical views to the non-ethnic regiments under his command.

14. During your research for this work, where did you travel? Any great road stories or “ah-ha” moments while doing the research?

A.   My German colleague and I traveled together to archives and important sites in France and Germany and later walked together in Willich’s footsteps in relevant cities, towns, and battlefields here in America. This is an essential part of doing biography and an opportunity many scholars simply do not have the resources to accomplish. One of my favorite moments happened on an all-day walk through the southern Black Forest region in Germany. When we reached the place of the most significant battle in Willich’s first 1848 campaign, we debated the former location of Dog Stable bridge. I climbed into the creek and discovered the remnants of the old stone bridge. My colleague absconded with a small remnant of the destroyed bridge which he may now treasure more than his present girlfriend.

15. What are you working on currently? Any current or ongoing research interests?

A.      The pandemic halted my research on a book length project involving emotions and Confederate allegiance. I’ve been spending a lot of time doing interviews and podcasts for the book launch and writing short form pieces for magazines and for the Emerging Civil War blog. My ongoing interest in Black history, Southern Unionists, and women’s history has now been supplemented by a renewed interest in immigration and labor history as a result of the Willich project. Most of all, I am looking for the next obscure historical figure with an incredible story that can teach us more about aspects of history that may not be front page news. That has been a fun niche for me and I am sticking with it, at least in the near term.


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