Brigadier General August Willich

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.

23 Responses to “Brigadier General August Willich”

  1. Carl Williams Says:

    very interesting, keep em coming!

  2. James F. Epperson Says:

    I’m looking forward to your take on Turchin!

  3. Don Gallagher Says:

    Good Morning Dave. I found my way here from Jim Rosebruck’s Antietam blog. I find Chickamauga a fascinating battle, because of it’s complexity. There is still a lot to learn there. I look forward to your post’s.

  4. Dean Essig Says:

    Great post, Dave.

  5. davidpowell334 Says:

    One thing I find fascinating about guys like Willich is how the Germans in the Army of the Cumberland had a different reputation than similar units of easterners like some of the 11th Corps troops. Union troops in the east won battles early, and there was less scapegoating. Certainly ethnic units still faced prejudice, but there weren’t going to be many “flying Dutchmen” comments about units like the 9th Ohio or 32nd Indiana.

    As for Turchin, we shall just have to see…:)

    Dave Powell

  6. James F. Epperson Says:

    Did you maybe mean to say, “Union troops in the WEST won battles early, and there was less scapegoating” ?

    Sorry, it is the editor in me …

    And—Hello, Dean!

  7. Dean Essig Says:

    Hey Jim!

    I don’t know about Dave’s opinion, but I’m of a mind the Germans in the east got an undeserved rap, 11th Corps especially.

    Any bunch of troops (German or not) caught unawares like they were at Chancellorsville would have had a foot race to Army HQ, too. If the corps itself was unprepared in ways other troops might have for this (doubtful, I think), that can be laid at the feet of Howard and Hooker.

    Even at Gettysburg they would have fared better if Barlow didn’t advance on his own hook causing the rest of the forward corps to spread out more to try to maintain alignment. Might have helped if Barlow didn’t look down on his troops, too.

  8. James F. Epperson Says:

    I think it is clear from as old a writer as Catton that a lot of the issue with the Germans was simple ethnic prejudice. It wasn’t as much of an issue out West.

  9. davidpowell334 Says:

    I agree – ethnic prejudice was the culprit.

    The part I find interesting is that this prejudice did not seem to translate so much in the west. Certainly the Germans themselves felt that prejudice, and one big spur to recruiting ethnic German regiments early in the war was the urge to “prove” themselves to the native-born.

    Perhaps the vibrant German river communities like Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis and Milwaukee (yes, more a lake than a river, but the same sort of community applied) proved strong enough to help overcome midwesterners’ prejudices towards “foreigners.”

    Early combat performance helped, too – the 9th Ohio earned a reputation for hard-hitting aggressiveness as early as Mill Springs, under Thomas, and that image stuck. By contrast, the 11th Corps fought under Sigel or were ‘Milroy’s weary boys.’

    Dave Powell

  10. Carl Williams Says:

    One thing only slowly sinking in is that we of Southern bent could have been bashing the Yankees for getting support from Commies all this time!! Missed opportunity? [vbg]

  11. davidpowell334 Says:


    Absolutely. We have come to collectivize your plantation, Kulak!

    Dave Powell

  12. Joe Reinhart Says:

    As you know I have written a regimental history of the 6th Kentucky, which contained 4 German companies and translated and edited collections of letters from Germans in the 6th Kentucky, 32nd Indiana and 9th Ohio (out in early 2010). I have translated and am now editing a collection of letters from the 82nd Illinois. The 82nd Illinois was in the 11th Corps and fought at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg before heading west.

    From the letters I have read, there was also strong prejudice exhibited against the Germans in the west. I believe concentration of Germans in the 11th Corps (almost half the regiments were German and there were many German generals and colonels) and the fact they were involved in defeats at Chancellorsville and the first day at Gettysburg made them more visible and a bigger target to blame for the defeats. Hooker and especially Howard were willing to let them take the blame for their own bad generalship. Anglo-Americans in the 11th Corps who were in the majority were deflecting blame from themselves by heaping it on the Germans. The Eastern Press especially spread the word that the Germans fled and were cowards and it was all their fault. That false impression stuck with the Germans through and after the war.

    The German regiments in the western armies fought in winning western armies and were not concentrated into brigades, divisions and corps, so sweeping generalizations could not be made about them causing a defeat. They also fought well in the circumstances and won praise from the commanders..

    In my forthcoming book “A German Hurrah!:The Civil War Letters of Friedrich Bertsch and Wilhelm Stängel, 9th Ohio Infantry,” there are many complaints about anti-German prejudices and one writer states he had never seen the nativism so bad before. In the regimental history of the 9th Ohio, published in 1897 and translated by Frederick Trautmann and published by Kent State in 1987 a former officer writes about anti-German prejudice his native countrymen face and faced, and points out Germans were defamed during the Civil War, too. He still felt the sting of nativism in 1897.

    It is also clear that Germans had prejudices against Anglo-Americans and other ethnics. German-Americans were proud of their ethnicity and thought they were superior soldiers compared Anglo-Americans. Anglo-Americans in German regiments were discriminated against, so it cut both ways.


  13. davidpowell334 Says:


    Thanks for that. I always assumed that there was some sort of prejudice, but never looked into it much. It will be interesting to contrast some of the German sources with english ones.

    I confess that I have not seen much evidence of prejudice recorded in english language sources, but then, I am mostly dealing with later war stuff, and it is also likely that the writers didn’t think it was important to record.

    I have seen quite a bit of anti-Irish sentiment from nativist writers.

    Dave Powell

  14. Willich - Blog - 16 Aug 2009 Says:

    […] Brigadier General August Willich « Chickamauga Blog […]

  15. Lou Carvin Says:

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  16. Andrew Zimmerman Says:

    Greetings from the International Institute for Social History in Amsterdam, where I just have been reading August Willich’s papers. Very interesting stuff, although all about his life before he came to the US, mostly in the Baden Reichsverfassungskampagne in 1849. Thanks for a really interesting blog post.

  17. here Says:

    Good Stuff, do you have a facebook account?

  18. Douglas Storm Says:

    Hello, I know this is an old post and an old comments thread but, here goes: Willich is referred to in the newest bio on Marx (Sperber) as being homosexual (this was an “open secret” according to Sperber). In the history that records Willich in the US I cannot find any mention of this. It is interesting that one of the articles calls him, pointedly, the Bachelor General and that seemed odd to me unless intending this particular hint. As is clear from the numbers of regiments or divisions (sorry, not well-versed in anything military) it is clear that Willich is not unique as an immigrant soldier serving as a soldier also in the European “revolutions.” What is unique is how he seems crucially placed in these historical events. Or perhaps how history places him? Marx too is not unique in this sense. Marx, at the time, while obviously quite important, was also one among many with an idea towards social revolution. Willich was ACTION while Marx was THOUGHT–perhaps that’s a too simple dichotomy but it might serve; and these men “broke” because of that difference…Marx thought social revolutions could only happen if many factors were aligned while Willich thought one could MAKE it happen (the military tactician sees the field at present–this is not strategy though). Anyway, further…Willich was a integral member of the Ohio Hegelians and one of several men who turned America on to Hegel (along with the equally important St. Louis Hegelians)–Emerson, et. al., in Concord mixed with these men via letters and even an exchange of lecturing “scholars.”

    So you see, this man, August von Willich–possibly more deeply aristocratic than is known–was for liberty of mind and body. He was not likely “for” any “state”–but for the right to be true to one’s own “manifest” destiny.

  19. Footnote FTW | Carte Blanchfield Says:

    […] For Willich’s experiences in Revolutionary Europe, see Engels’ The Campaign for the German Imperial Constitution; for his relationship with the League of Communists, see Marx’s essay The Knight of Noble Consciousness; for his time and America and Civil War service, see his entry in Appletons’ Cyclopædia of American Biography and web resources by Quigley, Peake, and Powell. […]

  20. Soapbox Books & Zines Says:

    One of our favorite Cincinnati socialists & a true Buckeye Red, called by Marx a great “communist with a heart”.

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