Hello H-CivWar Readers:
Today we feature the second part of our interview with 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.
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.
So, he sounds very similar to Karl Marx. How did the two get along with each other?
DTD: Not well. In a sense, the relationship between Marx and Willich mirrors intense rivalries among various leaders and philosophies and that doomed the revolution in the German states from the outset. Marx was a brilliant theorist who despised and demeaned nearly everyone in his orbit who did not conform to the very letter of his ideology. Although initially welcomed into the Cologne Communist League by Marx, the two soon came into conflict, as Willich quickly became the charismatic champion of workers; a man who sacrificed both social station and financial security to become one of them and fight on their behalf.
Their personal rivalry accelerated after the rebellions failed and they became political refugees in London. As one member of a London worker’s league described them, “Marx is respected, but Willich is popular.” Marx was a thinker, while Willich was clearly a man of action. Marx was convinced that the window of opportunity for radical revolution in Europe had closed, and that the ideal Communist society would need to evolve through several stages of economic development, beginning with capitalism. He resented Willich as a dangerous adventurer who urged his fellow refugees to seize the moment, foment violent rebellion, an impose a wholesale revolution in the existing social, political, and economic order.
The raging battle between Marx and Willich for leadership of London’s German émigrés came to a head in 1850, when Willich finally lost patience with his rival’s intensely personal attacks. Willich ended up dueling one of Marx’s young acolytes and the London Communist League split into competing factions. Willich’s group became the recognized leaders of the German political refugees for about two years, but several blunders on Willich’s part and Marx’s insatiable appetite for character assassination intersected with Louis Napoleon’s coup in France to effectively end the movement and force Willich to sail for America.
Now that Willich has arrived in the United States; he faced an interesting environment with the institution of slavery and unfettered industrial development causing the exploitation of wage laborers. How did Willich translate his European ideology into the United States?
DTD: This was a fascinating part of his story for me. After just a few weeks in New York, Willich had spoken with other recent immigrants like Carl Schurz and Friedrich Kapp and interviewed dozens of Americans. He concluded that to continue his lifelong commitment to political reform, worker welfare, and social justice in his new home required him to employ much different tactics than he had used in Europe. He pivoted from violent revolutionary to a spokesman for radical reform within what he believed was the world’s model, though imperfect, republic. His vision crystalized a few years before the Civil War when Willich edited a German language daily labor newspaper in Cincinnati. He abandoned utopian dreams of a pure communist society and developed his own idea of a socialist republic where government would be organized and run by workers and administered by trade associations. These reforms, though radical in nature, would be enacted through existing legislative channels. His ideas anticipated the Paris Commune in the 1870s and the syndicalist movements of late nineteenth century American socialists like Daniel De Leon.
For Willich, exploitation of enslaved people in southern agrarian states and wage laborers in the north’s burgeoning industries were both rooted in the same basic truth: an aristocratic class of plantation masters and factory owners who denied workers equal value for their labor. As Manisha Sinha points out in her wonderful history of abolition, Forty-Eighter immigrant leaders like Willich were a key cohort in an international movement that sought to end all forms of oppression from the workplace to racial injustice. Willich’s daring alliances with local black leaders and his rally and march protesting the execution of John Brown demonstrate the depth of his commitment to social justice in its many manifestations.
Willich made good progress in organizing local unions and trade associations, but his larger goal of a social republic was too radical for all but his red republican allies to stomach. Much of the momentum gained in the American labor movement by 1860 stalled when the sectional crisis peaked and war began.
The war saw Willich again in uniform and he was in many of the major campaigns in the western theater. In Prussia, Willich and his officers debated politics, did he do likewise in the United States with his fellow officers and educate the soldiers ideologically?
DTD: He most certainly did and he had a captive, friendly audience with the two all-German regiments he helped lead, the Ninth Ohio and Thirty-Second Indiana volunteer infantry regiments. Many of recruits from local Turner societies were receptive to his abolitionist principles and supportive of free labor messaging that conflated slave labor with wage labor. His disdain for clerics meant that political and even scientific topics often took the place of religious sermons in the citizen-soldier culture he promoted. Even after he became a brigade leader with a diverse group of regiments, his frequent speeches to his troops emphasized that the war was much more than an effort to preserve the Union. It was a battle for human rights, republican governance, and the very future of mankind.
While we are on the subject, how did Willich’s Prussian military education influence his work as an officer? Did he perceive of his Prussian education and the Prussian military system superior to how the U.S. educated officers and drilled soldiers?
DTD: Willich may be best remembered among Civil War enthusiasts for his tactical brilliance and innovations. While his talents like his leadership ability and coolness under fire are difficult to teach, most of his martial skills and accomplishments can be tied back to his training in the Prussian military school system. Of course, it did not hurt that Clausewitz was the director of the officer training academy when Willich was there.
In my research, I found strong primary source evidence in European military manuals for his use of bugle signal commands (these were not merely implemented to bridge language barriers), the hollow square formation to defend against cavalry attacks, and even his most celebrated innovation, advance firing. Willich put his own spin on the latter, changing that drill from two ranks to four and even expanding it to the brigade level. He also utilized retreat firing in a similar way, an equally effective tactic I have not found used anywhere else in either American Civil War army. The discipline and emphasis on battle simulations versus parade drilling he learned in Prussia also played a critical role in his success as a battlefield commander.
Like many of his Forty-Eighter peers, however, Willich also displayed a degree of cultural chauvinism. While this attitude could be effective in the civilian realm in channeling an appreciation of music, literature and other fine arts into a nascent ethnic nationalism, as Alison Clark Efford and others point out, it was a source of conflict between German American officers and their peers in the army. In 1866, Willich published a scathing critique of the standing army and its West Point-trained officer class as “a contrivance of monarchies.” He argued that the US should mimic the Prussian system with compulsory military service, and a citizen army. Any chance Willich had to rise higher or serve in the post-war army was certainly impacted by these feelings of German superiority; yet his accomplishments and courage in the field earned him the highest praise. The New York Times called him “undoubtedly the ablest and bravest officer of German descent” in the Civil War.
I cannot blame Willich for some German superiority feeling. As we draw to a close slowly, what lessons do you hope future Forty-Eighter scholars will take from your book and how does your biography of Willich significantly change our understanding of the Forty-Eighters and the writing about them?
DTD: Biographies of German Forty-Eighters who served in the American Civil War are few in number and most all were written before most historians began serious study of the war as part of a broader international movement for economic and social justice and popular government. Perhaps only Sabine Freitag’s biography of Friedrich Hecker, first written for a German audience in 2006 and later translated, helps English speaking readers really understand her central character’s radicalization while in Europe, for example. So, I think chronicling Willich’s ideological development over the course of his life on two continents adds intimate perspective that we need more of in order to support theories concerning international aspects of the Civil War.
I also think it is useful to pull back on the focus of Willich as a military leader, which was certainly his strongest talent, and consider him as a radical. I found that there were strong moral beliefs and philosophical influences that informed his radicalism. His core convictions remained consistent. Like many protest leaders, he consciously used emotional triggers to form affective bonds that coalesced into a German American ethnic nationalism. Although he adapted some of his political ideology and prescriptions to jive with his new environment in America, Willich was more often unable or unwilling to compromise, condemning him to spend most of his peacetime life as a political outsider. Like most radicals throughout history, it would take decades or even a century for some of the ideas and programs he promoted to be accepted and enacted by mainstream society.
Life accounts of important leaders like Willich lend complexity and nuance to our seemingly endless fascination with and understanding of one of the nineteenth century world’s most important events. Giving due credit to the contributions of recent immigrants in the American Civil War and examining the particular motivations of their leaders helps us avoid the pitfalls of viewing this conflict strictly through a limited, parochial lens.
Biography tends to be a more reader friendly genre for general audiences. It can help bridge the gap between purely scholarly monographs and popular history. If we engage more people with the latest scholarship in an accessible way outside the academy, it may, in some small way, help us communicate better with each other today regarding the lasting and often divisive legacies of the Civil War.
To close, David, I know you mentioned you are already working on another project but are not quite comfortable talking about the subject quiet yet. Besides the next book project, where do you think you are headed in the future writing history.
DTD: My current project will attempt to use biography as a framework to examine the interplay of emotions and allegiance among Southern political leaders. Historians like Stephen Berry, James Broomall, and especially Michael Woods have published books along these lines. I would like to dig deep with one principal character and place him in context with peers as I trace his journey from pre-war Unionist to reluctant Confederate to Confederate turncoat. The book proposal for that project is nearly complete and the research mostly done. I have a few other B-List characters who deserve book length treatment, but they would, like Willich, require me to travel to Europe for research once the pandemic eases.
Longer term, I would love to transition from university press to trade press biography. More and more historians have made this move successfully. The reward for me would be a much broader reader base. When you spend years on a project, it would be nice to know that more than a few thousand people have read your work. Writing about a character not involved in the US Civil War might also be a nice change. In any case, my central character must have a compelling and dramatic life story; one that would make good fiction if it had not been so well-documented. I will continue to write biography and look for ways to tweak traditional approaches and take risks where it adds value to the reader experience.