One reason to start Blogging is so I can talk about some of the more interesting lesser-known officers of the war. I thought I would start with one of the most colorful characters in either army:
Brigadier General August Willich was arguably the best brigadier in the 20th Corps and among the best in the Union army in 1863. A dedicated Communist; the fifty-three year old former Prussian army Lieutenant had forsaken his first career to pursue political reform, supporting himself through carpentry. He returned to command troops again during the European upheavals in 1848, this time against the government forces, subsequently fleeing to England in 1851. Friedrich Engels, who served as Willich’s adjutant, viewed Willich as the best soldier among the revolutionaries: “brave, cold-blooded, skilful, and of quick and sound perception in battle.”
Engels and his mentor Karl Marx were less enamored with Willich’s political views. All were dedicated socialists, but Willich disdained Marx’s more theoretical approach, as well as his university pedigrees and his liking for the swirl of English society. By contrast, Willich shared the adversities of the poor and espoused direct action. He was a firebrand even among the communists, and was known as the “reddest of the red.” Marx and Willich formed rival political factions, and at one point the enmity between them proved so deep that Willich challenged Marx to a duel. Marx avoided the confrontation, but one of his younger followers provoked the hotheaded Willich and was challenged in turn. Willich wounded the man, which seemed to settle the matter of honor, but failed to heal the political rift. By the early 1850s Willich arrived in America, and after a stint as a carpenter in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, settled in Cincinnati where he edited a socialist newspaper. When the war came, his military experience and ardent anti-slavery leanings propelled him back into uniform. Initially joining the 9th Ohio, he was elected adjutant, drilling them into a crack regiment. In the fall of 1861 he left the 9th to raise another all-German unit, the 32nd Indiana, and instill the same standards of drill and discipline there. After earning distinction at Shiloh, he was promoted to Brigadier General in July, 1862.
Willich next fought at Stone’s River, though his service there was brief: he was captured in the first minutes of the Confederate surprise assault in the early morning of December 31, 1862, while attempting to return to his brigade from divisional headquarters. His horse was shot, and he was quickly surrounded by Rebels. He was exchanged and returned to his command in the late spring of 1863.
Willich might be an egalitarian – he addressed his soldiers as ‘citizen’ outside of formal duties – but he was also a first-rate soldier. He was said to handle a brigade with the same effectiveness that most men commanded a regiment, and, as divisional commander Johnson noted, he “was always in the right place, and by his individual daring rendered the country great service.” He was also a tactical innovator. He wanted to mount his men in wagons in order to increase their mobility, an idea rejected as impractical due to the shortage of transport; and he also developed an alternative infantry formation he called “Advance Firing,” which he incorporated into his brigade’s drill over the summer of 1863. “One great advantage…of brigade drills under General Willich,” wrote Alexis Cope of the Fifteenth Ohio “was that every movement was explained beforehand and directed to some definite purpose and object. We were to attack the enemy in some assumed position, or we were to be attacked…in front, flank, or rear, and were moved in such a manner as to meet the attack. By this method the drills were made interesting and instructive to every man in the command.”
‘Advance Firing’ was very different than any variation on the standard U.S. Army drills then in use – Hardee’s, Casey’s, Scott’s, or the like. In “Advance Firing” a regiment would divide into four ranks, with enough space between the men in each rank so that another man could pass between them. The front rank would fire, and immediately reload. The second rank quickly advanced five paces, fired, and started to reload. The third and fourth ranks would repeat the process, leapfrogging ahead each time. The result was a moving wall of fire, with 25% of the regiment loaded or firing at any given time, and volleys being delivered at roughly fifteen second intervals. It had the potential to be devastating against a standard battleline.
The origins of “Advance Firing” are obscure. Willich told fellow soldiers that he developed the idea – along with the wagon-borne infantry concept – while in Libby Prison. It probably was not an entirely new concept to him. The movement is similar to a Prussian light infantry tactic (apparently used for village combat) employed in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, so it seems likely that he first encountered something like it while in German uniform. Whatever its origin, Willich first tested the technique in combat at Liberty Gap, in June 1863 during the Tullahoma Campaign. “Advance Firing” was used again at Chickamauga, again successfully, and not just by Willich’s men. More on that later…
General Rosecrans encouraged new ideas and innovation. He was a technical man, an inventor himself, and welcomed fresh thinking. If he did not actively endorse “Advance Firing,” he also did not discourage tactical innovations like Willich’s drill or Wilder’s mounted infantry scheme. When George H. Thomas replaced Rosecrans as head of the Army of the Cumberland, however, the technique was shelved, and Willich was strongly encouraged to return to more orthodox U.S. Army drill methods. Thomas proved to be a great commander and inspiring figure in the Union pantheon, but he was also more conservative in some things than was Rosecrans.
A shoulder wound at Resaca ended Willich’s field career, and he finished the war commanding a garrison post in his adopted hometown of Cincinnati. However, in 1870 at the age of 60, he returned home to Prussia to offer his services to his native country in the war against the French – which were politely declined. This was an interesting offer from a man who had once led armies against that same state, but he had apparently unbent from his strict sense of idealism by then. He spent some time in Europe, even attending lectures given by Karl Marx in Berlin, and presumably renewing old acquaintances among his socialist brethren. Then he returned to St. Mary’s, Ohio, where he died in 1878, and was buried in a local cemetery. He never married, but was a regular fixture in St. Mary’s, much celebrated on parade days and always popular with the residents.