Stephen Douglas Engle, Sigel’s The European rebellions In 1852, he came to New Sigel was about 5 feet, On May 4, 1861, the Third Thus Sigel’s career He was transferred to Virginia. I’ve come shust now Chorus: Yaw! daus is drue, I shpeaks Sigel’s In the spring of 1864, he Not the least of Breckinridge’s With Sigel’s carelessness Sigel began a leisurely Confederate raiders began On May 14, Sigel’s By 6 a.m. of the next day, Breckinridge gazed down Breckinridge’s basic Sigel’s first line An aide galloped up to the Sigel tried to organize The cadets drove toward Sigel began firing off reports. On May 19, 1864, Sigel was He died Aug. 22, 1902. More Franz Sigel exemplifies
sole biographer, wrote, "What was curious about him was not what he did,
but his exalted status for what he failed to do." He was born in the German
principality of Baden on Nov. 24, 1824. In 1843, Sigel graduated with honors
from the Military School at Carlsruhe, received his lieutenant’s commission
and served Grand Duke Leopold with distinction until 1847, when he was challenged
to a duel over his liberal politics. As an officer, he could not refuse. He
fatally wounded his opponent and resigned his commission.
of 1848 are comparable in our times only to the 1968 student revolts. Sigel
became war minister in Baden’s revolutionary government. The Prussians
invaded to restore the old order. He lost all three of his battles and retreated
to Switzerland. In exile, he revealed his true genius: public relations. As
self-publicizing journalist and orator, Sigel transformed his image from the
failure who had lost every battle into that of a legendary hero. Meanwhile,
he survived by playing piano in a sideshow.
York, where he taught, published a weekly newspaper and joined the state militia.
He also organized German athletic and cultural societies, creating and maintaining
friendships among German immigrant leaders throughout the major Eastern cities,
and published articles in German-language newspapers. In 1857, he moved to St.
Louis, when the German-American Institute appointed him instructor in mathematics
7 inches tall and weighed about 145 pounds. In youth, his hair was coal black.
He carried himself like a soldier, with a piercing gaze and firm handshake.
Though terse and humorless, the man whom West Pointers called "the block
of ice" moved and inspired his German-speaking audiences. He came to incarnate
their hopes for winning honor and advancement in their new country.
Missouri Infantry elected him its colonel; six days later, he helped suppress
Missouri’s attempted secession to the Confederacy. His first independent
command, at the Battle of Carthage, was marked, as usual, by defeat, but the
press made him look good. On Aug. 10, 1861, as a newly minted brigadier general,
Sigel contributed to the Union defeat at Wilson’s Creek by the inept handling
of his command, who were routed by two companies of Louisiana volunteers. Yet
again, he was widely praised in the press. This stemmed from brilliant media
manipulation. He mastered the exclusive interview and the news leak, and hand-delivered
his dispatches to friendly reporters to get his version of events out first.
bloomed. When he was passed over for independent field command in December 1861,
he offered his resignation in protest. Public support from thousands of immigrants
convinced his superiors not to accept the resignation they had initially received
with joy. Thus, he commanded two divisions at Pea Ridge, AR, where he did not
foul up. Friendly newspapers consequently proclaimed him a military genius,
and Sigel received his second star on March 21, 1862.
Mobs of adoring fans lionized him during his train journey from Missouri. There
were popular comic songs:
to tells you how
I goes mit regimentals,
To schlauch dem foes of Liberty,
Like de old Continentals
Vot fights mit England, long ago
To save de Yankee eagle;
Un now I gets mine sojer clothes,
Ve goes to fight mit Sigel.
Ve goes to fight mit Sigel.
modest performance as a corps commander under Major Gen. John Pope was nearly
overlooked after Pope’s debacle at Second Manassas in August 1862. The
German was shunted into insignificant posts where he could do no harm. However,
Franz Sigel was unsatisfied with prestige. He wanted glory. As the 1864 presidential
election approached, he lobbied for a major command. He got the Dept. of West
Virginia, effective Mar. 29, 1864. Gen. U.S. Grant, the Union commander, ordered
Sigel to advance upon Staunton, VA, to cut the Virginia Central Railroad and
threaten Lee’s left flank. Sigel’s opposite number, the Confederate
commander of the Western Dept. of Virginia, Major Gen. John C. Breckinridge,
had been appointed to his command barely a month earlier. Breckinridge had been
the youngest vice president of the United States at 35. At 39, a reluctant presidential
nominee, he had nonetheless run second to Lincoln in electoral votes. The Union
expelled him to the Confederacy by ordering his arrest for his principled opposition
to the war. In anger and frustration, Breckinridge accepted a general’s
commission in the Confederate army, a decision he later called the greatest
mistake of his life.
was only 43 years old. Although Breckinridge was not a professional soldier,
he learned from experience, and did not make the same mistake twice. Basil Duke,
one of his subordinates, wrote that Breckinridge "had unquestionably a
remarkable sagacity in all matters pertaining to actual warfare… His courage
and resolution were superb… Along with his stronger and more virile qualities
was an exceeding amiability of temper and an admirable self-control."
lesser gifts were his attractive physical presence and magnificent horsemanship.
His style was famously smooth and graceful: "General Breckinridge galloped
past, riding like a Cid," observed a cadet. Years later, a particularly
dashing Union cavalry officer, on being called the nation’s handsomest
man on horseback, replied, "You never saw John Breckinridge."
about security, the Confederates soon learned he would advance. Breckinridge
commanded some 5500 Confederate regulars and militia. Against this, Sigel commanded
about 8940 Union veterans: good troops, well rested, well supplied.
advance on May 1, opposed only by skirmishing Rebel cavalrymen. Though effectively
unimpeded, he advanced only 65 miles in two weeks. On May 5, he held maneuvers,
sending forth a regiment as skirmishers. Then he forgot it. At the end of the
day, the army counted its casualties: "Killed, none; wounded, none; missing,
the 34th Massachusetts Infantry."
plundering Sigel’s supply lines. He pulled his scouts from reconnaissance
to escort the wagon trains. Thus, he advanced blindly into enemy country. He
let his forces string out: eventually, 19 miles of muddy road divided his command.
Meanwhile, Breckinridge had united his forces, moving swiftly by rail and on
foot. He was still short of men, and even accepted the services of 261 cadets
from Virginia Military Institute, the renowned VMI. The cadets marched 160 miles
in four days to reach the front.
forces encountered a Confederate cavalry screen–the human equivalent of
radar–about eight miles north of New Market, VA. As Sigel pressed south,
the Rebel horsemen gave ground while sending information on his forces to Breckinridge.
Breckinridge and his artillery were on Shirley’s Hill, the high ground
about a mile southwest of New Market. The Confederate cavalry feinted against
the Union forces, trying to spark a fight, even as Breckinridge’s infantry
marched and countermarched just within sight of the enemy to create the illusion
of greater numbers. It worked. Sigel disregarded his intelligence reports to
believe Breckinridge was commanding 9000 men. Some of Sigel’s subordinates
believed there were 20,000 Confederates on the field.
from Shirley’s Hill. He opened his watch, turned to his commanders and
said, "It is 11 o’clock. I have offered him battle and he declines
to advance on us." He paused. "I shall advance on him."
battle plan never varied, largely because it always worked, and he used it at
New Market. His cavalry flanked Sigel’s front line to cut him off from
the rear even as his infantry pressed them from the front. By 12:30 p.m., Breckinridge
had taken New Market and continued advancing. Around 1:30, he rode forward with
his field artillery. A conventional commander used cannon merely to soften up
the enemy before an attack. Instead, Breckinridge used them as skirmishers,
the most mobile part of his offense, often moving through and ahead of his infantry,
advancing, firing and advancing again. This was revolutionary. It also worked.
fell back in disorder, running through his second line and throwing it into
confusion. Breckinridge handled his outnumbered troops so well that now, as
he began his general advance in mid-afternoon, he had more troops in combat
than Sigel. At this moment, a Union artillery battery blasted a hole in Breckinridge’s
line with grapeshot and canister. His only reserve was the VMI cadets. Breckinridge
turned to his aide de camp, Major Charles Semple, with tears in his eyes. "Put
the boys in, and may God forgive me for the order."
commandant of cadets with the orders. The cadets cheered. Then, in perfect order,
they advanced, closing their ranks as cadets began dropping from Union fire.
They plugged the gap and then advanced with the rest of Breckinridge’s
line through mud that sucked the shoes from their feet.
a counterattack. In his excitement he began barking orders in German, making
his commands incomprehensible.
a battery. The Union artillerists fired to nearly the last moment before limbering
up, leaving one gun behind. The boys swarmed over the field piece, and it was
over. Ten cadets died; 47 were wounded. Breckinridge rode up, encrusted with
mud, and called out, "Well done, Virginians!" A cadet replied, "That’s
very nice, general, but where’s the commissary wagon?"
The New York Tribune for May 18, 1864, even printed the headline "Sigel
Whips the Rebels At New Market." He grossly inflated Breckinridge’s
forces and described his retreat as a "retrograde movement." Meanwhile,
the feline Union chief of staff, Henry Halleck, wired Gen. Grant, "…Sigel
is already in full retreat… If you expect anything from him you will be mistaken.
He will do nothing but run. He never did anything else." Then he inquired
whether Gen. Grant felt the Dept. of West Virginia needed a new commander. Grant
telegraphed: By all means… appoint…anyone else to the command of West
relieved of command. He edited and published German weeklies in Baltimore and
then New York for the rest of his long life. In 1869, the Republicans nominated
him for secretary of state of the state of New York. He campaigned against prohibition,
arguing that lager was God-sent, and asked the immigrants to stand up and "fights
mit Sigel again." As usual, he lost.
than 25,000 followed his coffin to Woodlawn Cemetery. Five years later, a magnificent
parade marked his monument’s unveiling on Riverside Dr. Behind the mounted
police and the soldiers marched the Grand Army of the Republic and dozens of
German societies, from the Deutsche Liederkranz to the Vereinigung Deutsche
Demokraten des Bronx and the New Yorker Deutscher Apothker Verein.
how not to do it. Yet, his career was not without glory–for others. Every
15th of May, the VMI Corps of Cadets march in review, bayonets fixed, to the
roll of muffled drums. The color party carries the school flag that their predecessors
followed to New Market. Then the adjutant barks 10 names, as in roll call: Cabell,
Atwill, Crockett, Hartsfield, Haynes, Jefferson, Jones, McDowell, Stanard and
Wheelwright. After each name, from the ranks before him, comes the response,
"Died! Upon the field of honor, sir!"
Stephen Douglas Engle, Sigel’s
The European rebellions
In 1852, he came to New
Sigel was about 5 feet,
On May 4, 1861, the Third
Thus Sigel’s career
He was transferred to Virginia.
I’ve come shust now
Yaw! daus is drue, I shpeaks
In the spring of 1864, he
Not the least of Breckinridge’s
With Sigel’s carelessness
Sigel began a leisurely
Confederate raiders began
On May 14, Sigel’s
By 6 a.m. of the next day,
Breckinridge gazed down
Sigel’s first line
An aide galloped up to the
Sigel tried to organize
The cadets drove toward
Sigel began firing off reports.
On May 19, 1864, Sigel was
He died Aug. 22, 1902. More
Franz Sigel exemplifies