And now for something completely different…
It’s time to talk about Franz Sigel.
“What!” you exclaim? “Why on earth do we want to talk about Franz Sigel?”
Two reasons. One, he was the Union commander at the Battle of New Market, which I – being a graduate of VMI, have a vested interest in. After all, I escaped the “I” on numerous weekends over the years to do living history at New Market, so I do have a soft spot for the place. The second reason is a little more convoluted. John C. Breckinridge, who commanded a division at Chickamauga, commanded the whole Confederate army (which was only slightly larger than his old division) in the Shenandoah Valley that May 15th, 1864. I am interested in the subsequent careers of all the men who survived that bloodletting.
One of my side projects for the past couple of years has been a book on New Market. Yes, I know that Charles Knight came out with an excellent book on the battle just a few years ago. Charles’s work expanded the point of view to include a broader perspective than just the VMI Cadet’s role in this battle, and he succeeded – his book is well worth reading.
But, I feel that Franz Sigel gets short shrift. Maybe not as short a shrift as the diminutive German received at the hands of William C. Davis, in that historian’s own fine study of the same battle, now several decades old; but short shrift none-the-less.
Sigel tends to be universally dismissed as an idiot. And let’s face it, after years of studying Braxton Bragg, I know what that sort of dismissal looks like. My gut warned me to reject the notion: too pat, too easy, too dismissive. There is more at work here.
So I started to read the primary sources. Some very interesting things struck me. First and foremost, Ulysses S. Grant’s hand in this campaign is quite evident, and not for the better. Sigel was chosen for command of the Department of West Virginia without Grant’s input, and the new general-in-chief was none too happy about that. So Grant meddled. Initially, he approved a two-pronged scheme of maneuver, with General George Crook moving down the valley from the southern end, and Sigel marching up the valley from the northern end. Then Grant changed his mind, sending a Union officer named Edward O. C. Ord to West Virginia with orders to effectively replace Sigel, adding a third maneuver column from Beverly, and relegating Sigel to admin and supply duties.
This might not have been so bad had Ord been capable. Instead, Ord was a schemer, a careerist, and a moral coward. Ord hated the idea of having to serve under Sigel, and more importantly, once Ord got a look at the troops he was to command, he realized how unprepared for operations they actually were. Within a few days, Ord fled the department and begged Grant to be relieved, fearing that he might get stuck with the responsibility (and the blame) if things went wrong.
Grant, having already disrupted Sigel’s plans once, now did so again. He acquiesced to Ord’s request. This left Sigel in the lurch. Troops gathered at Beverly now marched back from whence they came, though awful weather, wasting weeks of important time that could have been spent in badly needed training.
And that was just the first of the multiple rugs pulled out from under the feet of Franz Sigel.