General August Willich and Advance Firing

“Lord Almighty, who can stand against that? Four lines of battle and every one of them firing!” 

~ unknown Confederate soldier at the Battle of Liberty Gap, Tennessee, June 25, 1863

 

          On May 25, 1863, the camps of the First Brigade of the Second Division of the 20th Army Corps near Murfreesboro, Tennessee reverberated with cheers and shouts for the return of one of the most eccentric if beloved brigadiers in the army. It had been nearly six months since the soldiers of the brigade had last seen August Willich, but they were delighted to have him back.

“The meeting between him and the boys was one not soon forgotten,” remembered Andrew J. Gleason of the 15th Ohio. “He had the men called up in front of the colonel’s tent and he told us he was ‘so glad to see us that he could almost take us in his arms and kiss us.’ After a few remarks in his broken English, he said he had some “leetle dings” to tell us when he got the brigade together. He then bid us goodbye and rode off followed by the cheers of his men.”

In an army of strong individualists, August Willich stood out. The Prussian-trained officer abandoned his traditional upbringing and embraced radicalism to support the 1848 revolutions in Germany. A virulent opponent of all forms of slavery, Willich didn't have much use for organized religion and eventually he became such an ardent Communist that even Karl Marx felt he was dangerous!  But despite his political eccentricities he was beloved by his men who looked past his passion for bugle calls, his pet raccoon, and his broken English, recognizing the old Prussian as one of the best brigadiers in the Army of the Cumberland. 


The inspiration for tactical innovations can come from any number of circumstances, but for Brigadier General August Willich, the inspiration for “advance firing” came during the long months of boredom spent within the confines of Richmond’s infamous Libby Prison. Captured in the opening moments of the Battle of Stones River while separated from his brigade, the Prussian-born brigadier contemplated the causes of his misfortune at Stones River and applied his years of Teutonic military training to produce a new way to deploy his brigade and increase its striking power.

If there was a brigade that was open to tactical innovations, it was Willich’s. Prior to Stones River, the four veteran regiments of the brigade (32nd and 39th Indiana and 15th Ohio and 49th Ohio) had proven themselves at Shiloh and felt ready to manage anything the Rebels might throw their way. The rookie 89th Illinois tried to emulate their veteran comrades in the brigade, but they too were in for a rude shock at Stones River. Caught in the opening assault badly out of position, the brigade suffered heavy casualties before being driven from the field. The men heard lots of criticism in the press and from their comrades in the Army of the Cumberland about their role in the collapse of the Right Wing in those critical opening moments of the battle. They thirsted to clear their name and prove themselves.

This Adolph Metzner depiction shows the camp of the 32nd Indiana in Murfreesboro in the days after Stones River. August Willich had led the mostly German 32nd Indiana before earning his stars and taking brigade command in 1862. Willich's return from Rebel captivity in May 1863 was a cause for celebration throughout the camp of the First Brigade. 


A few days later, General Willich brought the officers of the brigade together and laid out his concept. “The movement was quite simple, being a line of battle in four ranks, each rank advancing a few paces in front and firing, then stopping to load while the other ranks advanced alternately, keeping up a steady advance and steady fire all the time,” wrote Alexis Cope of the 15th Ohio. A few days later, they gave it some practice. “At first there was some confusion caused by some man passing to the right instead of the left of the man in front of him. General Willich said, ‘two men must not try to go through the same hole.’ After practicing a short time, we had no trouble in executing the movement and all were much pleased with it.”

It was an innovation designed to be used on the attack and gave promise of greatly increasing the shock power of the brigade’s battle line by concentrating the brigade’s firepower into a narrow front. The rapid rate of fire enabled by the four successive lines would give the defenders little chance to reload before a second volley of Willich’s “little blue pills” would crash into their lines. While some portions of Rosecrans’ army experimented with repeating arms like Colt’s Revolving Rifles or Spencer Repeating Rifles, Willich’s innovation offered a chance to accomplish the same goal (increased firepower) with the single-shot rifle musket.

Private Robert E. Stewart of Co. E, 15th Ohio 

Willich instituted a series of intensified brigade drills in June in preparation for the coming campaign. The men practiced this new technique until they had it mastered. “One great advantage and benefit in brigade drills under General Willich was that every movement was explained beforehand and directed to some definite purpose and object,” Cope noted. “We were to attack the enemy in some assumed position, or we were to be attacked by the enemy in front, flank, or rear, and were moved in such a manner to meet the attack. By this method, the drills were made interesting and instructive to every man in the command.”


On June 23rd, General William S. Rosecrans embarked on the opening moves of his Tullahoma campaign and on June 25th at Liberty Gap, General Willich finally found an opportunity to try out his new tactic. General Richard Johnson’s division was tasked with holding Liberty Gap while Rosecrans pushed through Hoover’s Gap with Thomas’ Corps and by the middle of the afternoon, Patrick Cleburne’s division was starting to push to seize control of the gap from Johnson’s men. The fighting blazed back and forth for hours as the Federals repulsed attack after attack against their position.

It was nearly evening and Willich’s frontline regiments were starting to run low on ammunition. He needed to pull them back and perform a “passage of the lines” under enemy fire, always a ticklish operation. Turning to Colonel William Harvey Gibson and his 49th Ohio, Willich ordered the Ohioans forward to relieve Willich’s old command, the 32nd Indiana. The Confederates, sensing that the Union line was becoming discombobulated, renewed their attack and this is where Willich saw his chance.

Colonel William Harvey Gibson of the 49th Ohio was a man familiar with adversity and the hard road of redeeming a reputation. Before the war, he had become involved in an embezzlement scandal while serving as state treasurer. His predecessor (and brother-in-law) had left the state short and Gibson was accused of covering it up, which forced his resignation. He returned to Tiffin in shame and re-opened his law office resolved never to be compromised in such a way again. The "golden-tongued orator" became an advocate of the Republican party and was chosen to be colonel of the 49th Ohio in the summer of 1861. He saw action at Shiloh and later took command of Willich's brigade at Stones River where he earned praise from his superiors for his tenacity and pluck. Gibson is pictured here standing next to his horse Morgan who he rode until Morgan was killed at Stones River. 


Pulling Gibson aside, the old Prussian directed him to “try our drill recently originated and introduced into the brigade.” In turn, Gibson barked out the command “Advance firing!” and the ten companies of the regiments formed themselves into four successive ranks of men and started off. The first rank fired then went to ground to reload while the other three ranks continued to march forward. Then the fourth rank fired and dropped, then the third rank, and finally the second rank by which point the first rank was at their sides and ready to fire again. By then, the Confederates were hightailing it down the Bell Buckle Road.

Colonel Gibson laconically reported that “the enemy was driven from his concealment and compelled to retreat before our fire which was delivered with a regularity and rapidity that no veterans could withstand.” A captured Arkansas sergeant agreed, stating “Lord Almighty, who can stand against that? Four lines of battle and every one of them firing!”

Willich’s innovation worked. The shame of Stones River had been erased. The brigade would go on to use this tactic at Chickamauga as did a few other regiments of the Army of the Cumberland.

 

The national colors of the 89th Illinois, also known as the "Railroad Regiment." features the regimental motto "Clear the Track" on the canton. The regiment was raised in the Chicago area with hundreds of railroad men upon its ranks and saw its first battle at Stones River. 

Sources:

Cope, Alexis. The Fifteenth Ohio Volunteers and Its Campaigns. Columbus: Alexis Cope, 1916, pgs. 278-280

Dixon, David. Radical Warrior: August Willich’s Journey from German Revolutionary to Union General. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, pgs. 176 and 182

Mann, Richard F. The Buckeye Vanguard: History of the Forty-Ninth Veteran Volunteer Infantry, 1861-1865. Milford: Little Miami Publishing Co., 2010, pgs. 75-77


Comments

  1. Excellent article. I am from Murfreesboro and grew up there. I recently moved to Elkhart, Indiana and found a memorial to a soldier that fought at Stones River. I thought you may be interested.
    https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=76256
    Silas Baldwin Civil War Memorial

    ReplyDelete
  2. As usual an excellent and insightful article with illustrations I've never encountered before. I am particularly interested in the "Forty-Eighters" and other ideologically motived men who joined the Union Army during the Civil War.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Here is a link to see all the Metzner drawings: https://www.loc.gov/search/?fa=contributor:metzner,+adolph

      Delete

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