Carl Schurz: Civil War General and Difficult Statesman

Carl Schurz (1829-1906) came to America from his native Germany in 1852. Even before he became a naturalized U.S. citizen, his influence in American politics, especially among German-American immigrants, became so great that he was nominated for lieutenant governor of Wisconsin as a Republican.

In 1860, he led the Wisconsin state Republican delegation to the national convention. He campaigned for Lincoln who later appointed him Minister to Spain. He rose to become a Major General in the Union Army during the Civil War, was elected to the U.S. Senate from the state of Missouri, and later served as Secretary of the Interior, the highest offices ever occupied by a non-native born citizen.

Schurz biographer Hans Trefousse called him “America’s most celebrated citizen of foreign birth.”
Carl Schurz

Along the way, Lincoln allowed Schurz to read the notes which formed the basis for Lincoln’s first inaugural address — almost one month before the delivery of that oration. Schurz undoubtedly was buoyed by Lincoln’s belief that: “One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute.“

Schurz played Beethoven’s great works for Lincoln on a White House piano. He worked for, gave personal advice to, or opposed at least six U.S. presidents, wrote for at least six newspapers and magazines, published notable books and gave countless speeches of national significance

Carl Schurz expressed his deeply felt respect and admiration for Lincoln in his “Abraham Lincoln: An Essay,” published in 1891. Schurtz wrote, “The people knew that the man at the head of affairs, on whose haggard face the twinkle of humor so frequently changed into an expression of profoundest sadness, was more than any other deeply distressed by the suffering he witnessed; that he felt the pain of every wound that was inflicted on the battlefield, and the anguish of every woman or child who had lost husband or father; that whenever he could he was eager to alleviate sorrow, and that his mercy was never implored in vain. They looked to him as one who was with them and of them in all their hopes and fears, their joys and sorrows,— who laughed with them and wept with them; and as his heart was theirs, so their hearts turned to him. His popularity was far different from that of Washington, who was revered with awe, or that of Jackson, the unconquerable hero, for whom party enthusiasm never grew weary of shouting. To Abraham Lincoln the people became bound by a genuine sentimental attachment.”

Schurt became a dedicated supporter of the still young Republican Party and campaigned for Lincoln in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Wisconsin. After the election, President Lincoln appointed him U.S. envoy to Spain. Upon the first defeats of the Union Army in the Civil War, Schurz returned to the U.S. and begged Lincoln to appoint him a Union Army general.

He won his appointment and rose to the rank of Major General, but not without significant controversy. Biographer Trefousse wrote that Schurz was “a competent officer who had risen too high, too fast.”

Schurz had no military training and his appointment was largely political payback from Lincoln and an effort to secure the continued support of German Americans. But Schurz, like Joshua Chamberlain, dedicated himself to the study of military thinking and tactics. He immersed himself in Clausewitz, Jomini and other noted military experts in an attempt to make up for his lack of military background.

His personal daring in battle remains unquestioned. But the units Schurz led did not always fare well in battle. And a certain amount of prejudice against the “Dutch” troops he usually led clouded Schurtz’s record as a military man.

In the summer of 1862 Schurz found himself in command of the Third Division in Segal’s First Corps of Pope’s Army of Virginia. Largely composed of German immigrants, the corps already had a reputation as “a band of wild, untrained and demoralized marauders.”

On August 22, 1862, at Freeman’s Ford, Schurz ordered a bayonet charge in an effort to rescue General Henry Bohlen’s brigade, including the Eighth Virginia (U.S.) and Sixty-First Ohio. Bohlen was killed in the engagement, his brigade decimated and Schurz was forced to withdraw, but his actions in battle had been deliberate and forceful.

On August 29 Schurz led his men in an eight hour engagement against Longstreet’s men and part of Jackson’s corps near Grovetown. The next day, he led his men again in battle and, at one point, tried to encourage his commander Sigel to push all his men forward. But Sigel, not known for his audacity, refused to press the attack. Schurz supervised a withdrawal again.

The New York Tribune recorded these engagements and lauded Schurz for leading “his division in the hottest fight with heroic courage and veteran skill.”

Schurz wrote of the Second Battle of Bull Run: “Stonewall Jackson, with a force of 26,000 men, had worked his way through Thoroughfare Gap to the north of us, had swooped all around Pope’s flank, having made a march of fifty miles in thirty-six hours and pounced upon Manassas Junction, where Pope’s supplies and ammunition were stored, helping himself to whatever he could use and carry off, and burning the rest. Jeb Stuart’s troopers, accompanying Jackson, had even raided Pope’s headquarters at Catlett’s Station. It was a brilliant stroke, but at the same time most hazardous, for Pope’s largely superior forces might have been rapidly concentrated against him, with Longstreet, his only support, still far away.”

Pope was relieved.

At Chancellorsville in May 1863, Schurz’s division performed poorly. When Schurz’s men were surprised by Jackson who attacked at dusk on May 2, the rout was on. of the Schurz had tried to alert his new corps commander, Maj. Gen. O.O. Howard, that the flank was poorly prepared, but to no avail. After Chansellorsville, Schurz was saddened by press criticism of the German troops and particularly his own division for their confusion and panic. Although he responded to the papers, his Germans were mistaken for Brig. Gen. Charles Devens’s First Division. Deven’s men had retreated wildly in a rout.

Schurz wrote General Howard one of his classic, stinging letters. The letter was so bitter that Howard said, “I thought I should never survive it, but I have.”

The debacle at Chansellorsville stigmatized the German troops thereafter. The rest of the Army of the Potomac called them “foreigners,” and worse: cowards. Despite Schurz’s best efforts, he was never able to completely restore the reputation of his men as fighters or himself as a military leader.


As the three day Battle of Gettysburg was about to commence, Schurz was in the XI Corps under Maj Gen. O.O. Howard. Schurz woke his men early on July 1, 1863, in Emmitsburg, some ten miles from Gettysburg. During the march toward Gettysburg, Schurz was told by dispatch rider from Howard that the First Corps was fighting west of Gettysburg. Schurz was ordered to rush his corps forward, reinforce the First Corps and assume command of the Eleventh Corps.

Schurz galloped ahead and reached Howard on Cemetery Hill about 11:30 A.M. Howard told Schurz that General Reynolds had been killed. Howard now commanded the field and Schurz was needed to position the Eleventh Corps. The First Corps needed the Eleventh Corps on the high ground on its right flank, near Oak Hill, northwest of town.

The corps arrived but the men were nearly exhausted from marching at the double quick in the summer heat. Schurz led them forward through town toward Oak Hill. But, soon after noon, Rodes’s division of Ewell’s Confederate Corps arrived on Oak Hill and attacked the right of I Corps. At 2 p.m. Heth’s division joined the attack on I Corps. At 3 p.m., the battle spread north of the town when Jubal Early’s division of Ewell’s Corps attacked down the Harrisburg Road and crushed the flank of Schurz’s outnumbered XI Corps. At about the same time, west of Gettysburg, Pender’s division relieved Heth and assaulted I Corps’ position along Seminary Ridge.

Both Eleventh Corps divisions that fought on Oak Hill retreated in disarray through Gettysburg, losing almost 50% of their men, half of them captured as they tried to run through town. It had become another humiliating rout for the Eleventh Corps.

Schurz was not blamed. Schurz’s horse was shot from under him but the general was unharmed. He stayed at the front with his men and tried to prevent the retreat. But his men, outnumbered and exhausted, had suffered another humiliating defeat.

General Buford put most of the blame on Howard, saying that there was “no directing person on the field.”

General John Buford

Schurz retained his division when the Eleventh Corps was sent to Chattanooga that fall, but resigned from the army early the next year.

Schurz returned to civilian life, working as Washington correspondent for the New York Tribune, then as editor-in-chief of the Detroit Post. Starting in l867 he served as co-editor and part owner of the German-language Westliche Post in St. Louis, Missouri.

In 1869, Schurz was elected U.S. senator by his new home state, Missouri. Only sixteen years after arriving in America as a homeless fugitive, Carl Schurz became a member of his adopted country’s highest legislative body. The former minister to Spain, war veteran, and newspaperman would now be called Senator. He was only forty years old.

Schurz only served one term in the Senate. But that was not the end of his public career. President Rutherford B. Hayes made Carl Schurz his Secretary of the Interior where he championed civil service reform and made improvements in the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Carl Schurz never went “quietly into the night.” He was difficult, perhaps irascible. He never shied away from giving unsolicited advice and outspoken opinions to his seniors. Many of his letters had an insolent tone. In fact, he badgered Presidents Lincoln, Johnson and others with his vitriolic, opinion-filled letters. That Lincoln largely tolerated or ignored Shurtz’s haranguing is testimony to his forbearance. Unfortunately, others were much less patient with Schurz. Some even reprimanded him.

Because of Schurz’s deeply held convictions and strongly worded speeches, editorials and letters, he became a hero to his supporters and a lightening rod to his critics.

He moved to New York City, where he helped found the New York Evening Post. From 1892 to 1898 Schurz wrote editorials for Harper’s Weekly.

At the opening of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, Schurz told immigrants from Germany how he expected them to fit into American society. The term “melting pot” had not yet been coined, but Carl Schurz fully subscribed to the idea. “ I have always been in favor of a healthy Americanization, but that does not mean a complete disavowal of our German heritage,” Schurz told the immigrants. “Our character should take on the best of that which is American, and combine it with the best of that which is German. By doing this, we can best serve the American people and their civilization.”

During his final illness, Mark Twain was among those who called upon the old general. Carl Schurz, one of the last surviving generals of the Civil War, died May 14, 1906, in New York.

In 1929, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, Germany’s Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann summed up Schurz’s contributions: “Carl Schurz managed to combine his love for Germany with a loyalty to his American homeland in a marvelous unity reflecting the striving of his great personality which, here as well as there, was concerned with profound moral goals that are not restricted to a single nation, but apply to all mankind.”

Among the many accolades and eulogies of Schurz at the time of his death, he may have been proudest of the remarks of Theodore Roosevelt, who he had opposed. “The country has lost a statesman of Lincoln’s generation,” wrote T.R., “whose services both in peace and war at the great crisis in the Republic’s history, will not be forgotten while that history lasts.”


Mr. Carey is a frequent contributor to the Civil war page of The Washington Times.

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