Author Interview--David T. Dixon (Radical Warrior) Part 1

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature David T. Dixon to talk about his new book Radical Warrior: August Willich’s Journey from German Revolutionary to Union General, which came out with the University of Tennessee Press.
David Dixon holds an M.A. in history from the University of Massachusetts. He lives with his wife in Santa Barbara, California. He has also published The Lost Gettysburg Address and his articles have appeared in both popular and scholarly periodicals.
David, how did you become interested in August Willich?

DTD: I made many contacts in the Civil War history community after publishing my first book, The Lost Gettysburg Address: Charles Anderson’s Civil War Odyssey. I consider myself a historian who does biography. I am particularly interested in obscure second and third tier historical characters whose accomplishments and stories deserve book-length treatments. I had no top candidate for a monograph after Anderson, so I reached out to colleagues and asked them to give me lists of worthy “B-List” characters. Willich was cited by a number of historians whom I respect and admire, so I did some preliminary research. Many scholars had written about various aspects of Willich’s extraordinary life, but no one had put it together in a comprehensive way. There were many reasons for this, not the least of which was the fact that Willich spent more than half his life in Prussia, and to do him justice meant combing through hundreds of primary and secondary sources in archaic German print and script, French, and English languages. It also meant traveling to Europe for research and walking in his footsteps; something that every biographer must do.
I have criteria that I apply to potential biography candidates. First and foremost, they must have a compelling personal story that can drive a lively narrative. Second, they must be intimately connected to “A-List” historical figures and events. Third, they must have something important to say; something that touches on larger historical questions. Finally, they should have a large collection of personal papers available for public view. Willich passed the first three criteria with flying colors, but the fact that he left no collection of personal papers nearly eliminated him from contention. I made an exception in this case, due to the fact that he had published important pamphlets at critical moments of his life, had been a newspaper editor who wrote daily editorials for several years. In addition, the dozens of personal letters that survive in other collections are intimate, credible, and written at key junctures in his life journey.

I share your pain with nineteenth century German writing and print text. It is like you have to learn two languages. You mentioned that Willich published pamphlets, but what was the source base? It often seems that with Atlantic characters, you have a solid source base for one half of their experience but not the other—was Willich different?

DTD: Yes, Willich was different. Peers like Schurz and Sigel, for example, collected and composed autobiographical material that both published in 1902, many years after the revolutions in the German states and the American Civil War. Willich wrote no such memoirs. The source material from him, both private and public, is almost all written in the moment, without the benefit or hazards of hindsight. Willich himself disdained what he called “hero-making” and was content to let the facts and his record speak for him. The downside here, of course, if we have more contemporary primary sources written about him than we do by him; but this is a common challenge, as you say, and what we do have is of remarkable quality and frankness in understanding his talents, weaknesses, and motives.

Considering the challenges of your source base, why did you decide to write a biography? What benefits do you see with biography versus other styles of history writing?

DTD: I have always been drawn to biography because it gives one an opportunity to dive deeply into the actions, thoughts, and emotions of people who help make history. Biography has its limitations, to be sure. It is hard to draw large scale inferences, much less prove a broad historical thesis based on a limited dataset from a central character and that person’s circle of confidantes. I think that is why biography has been considered by many, at least up until fairly recently, a mere stepchild of history.
The biographical “turn” in history scholarship that has been much discussed in recent years has been driven, at least in part, by the increasing recognition that complex historical events defy simple explanations and broad generalizations. Individual agency by political leaders or by escaping slaves, for example, need to be examined, at least in part, using a biographical approach. Amy Murrell Taylor did this so well in her masterful book,
Embattled Freedom. Certainly, her sources were limited; yet she managed to paint an illuminating picture of refugees from slavery using group biography to frame her argument. 
My ambition with the Willich biography was less about groundbreaking new scholarship than it was about expanding our understanding of these mid-nineteenth century radical transatlantic revolutionaries. By opening an intimate window into one of the most important ethnic German leaders of his time, I could compare his experiences to the broader theses advanced by leading scholars of the European rebellions of 1848, immigration history, labor activism, American Civil War history, the history of socialism, and even the history of abolitionism. The fact that Willich was involved in all of these movements and that these seemingly diverse currents could be seen as converging into a larger thread of red republican political orientation fascinated me.

I agree, being able to explore a person in Europe and the United States offers you a great opportunity to explore changes. We talked before the interview a little and you mentioned that you had to make some cuts, but you deliberately devoted attention to Willich’s work in Europe, in contrast to many other studies. Why do you think that is important? How did Willich, a Prussian Junker, turn socialist reformer and eventually in 1848, revolutionary?

DTD: Before I answer your first question, I need to answer the second question. Fortunately, Willich published a pamphlet in 1848 that goes into intimate detail concerning his struggles with his conscience that led him to abandon a seventeen-year military career, renounce his noble social status, and eventually rebel against his country. We also have series of letters to his mentor and others to his best friend that describe his conversion to what was then called “true socialism” in the vein of radical philosophers like Moses Hess and Wilhelm Weitling.
I think it is useful to compare Willich’s political path to that of his older brother, who attended the same military schools, yet became a career officer in the Prussian army and remained loyal to the king. Both became orphans after their father, a decorated military hero, died young. The older brother went to live with an uncle who was himself a retired Prussian army officer. Willich, on the other hand, was raised in his aunt’s family. Her husband, Friedrich Schleiermacher, has been called the father of modern liberal theology and was suspected of being a closet republican. Willich was a military school classmate and friend of Friedrich Sallet, an important radical poet who quit the army in the 1830s to write literature critical of the Prussian monarchy. Finally, Willich was assigned to the Seventh Artillery Regiment in Wesel, where he found a large circle of peers who became radical socialists. Fritz Anneke (husband of the noted feminist Mathilde Anneke) and Joseph Wedemeyer were among those that Willich assembled into a reading circle. Both also ended up emigrating to America and serving as officers in the Civil War. The Seventh became the most infamous hotbed of dissent in the entire Prussian army in the mid-1840s. So, understanding Willich’s upbringing, early influences, and the happenstance of his assignment to a place where liberal sentiments abounded, helps explain why he chose the path he did, as opposed to his brother.
Now for your second question, why did I insist on spending nearly half of the book on Willich’s life in Europe? Well, I believe that understanding the radicalization of Willich and his peers is critical to grasping the mentality of these revolutionaries as they became political refugees and settled in America. As one newspaper editor exclaimed in 1861, “This is the American 1848!” The current perspective of scholars like Andre Fleche, Andrew Zimmerman, and a host of others, is that the American Civil War needs to be viewed in the context of a larger movement in the mid-nineteenth century that featured transatlantic activists pushing for republican government, free labor, and social justice. Leaders like Willich, Schurz, Sigel and others had an outsized impact on the recruitment of German soldiers, who enlisted earlier and in far greater numbers than any other foreign-born population. Schurz and Sigel’s biographers spend only about 25 pages on their subject’s European experience. I feel we need a deeper understanding of just how such men became radical warriors and enthusiastic Union volunteers.

Obviously, I completely agree with your attitude about giving more attention to European experiences of European immigrants. At the same time, Willich seems torn in Europe. In part he is something of an ideologue but he does have his military background and much of his 1848 work is military. Do you think of him more as a soldier or as a political reformer in Europe, especially in 1848?

DTD: Willich certainly had a difficult time breaking away for his military career, but by 1847 he was so utterly consumed with the plight of working class people and the disregard of their welfare by the monarchs of Europe, that he dedicated himself to radical political and social change for the rest of his life. I see him as a far-left activist who believed that violent revolution in Europe by an armed citizenry was the only feasible path to a more just and equitable society. So, in that sense, his military training and skills, combined with strong leadership talents, made him well-suited for the rebellion that took place in 1848 and 1849.

David T. Dixon 's work is an excellent biography of August Willich. Although I was very familiar with his role in the American Civil War because of my own research in translating and editing the letters contained in August Willich's Gallant Dutchman: Civil War Letters of the 32nd Indiana Infantry (Kent, OH, 2006), Dixon's well researched biography contains much additional information about his military service and life after the war. I also enjoyed the detailed information Dixon uncovered about Willich's early life and his significant role in the German Revolution of 1848 and uprisings in 1849. I highly recommend this book.

Joe Reinhart