Franz Sigel goes to New Market.

And now for something completely different…

Franz Sigel

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.

13 Responses to “Franz Sigel goes to New Market.”

  1. Christopher Coleman Says:

    Siegel’s strictly military record I would call mixed; he significantly aided in keeping Missouri in the Union and performed adequately at Pea Ridge. His record as commander of the XI Corps may be undistinguished, but at least it was better than his successor, O. O. (Uh-Oh) Howard’s. He had the distinction of being beaten by Stonewall Jackson, joining a long list of other Federal officers who shared that distinction.

    What many military historians forget, however, is the fundamental reality of the Civil War–of ANY civil war–that it is primarily a political conflict; the military actions always being subservient to the political goals. Siegel, one of the “Forty-Eighters”–German revolutionaries who fled to the US after the failure of the European Revolutions of 1848–and he was tremendously popular among the large German immigrant population, who overwhelmingly supported Lincoln and the Republicans in the 1860 Election. Siegel helped recruit tens of thousands of recruits for the Union cause; men who were not only supported the Union cause, but Abolitionism as well.

    Like Siegel, the XI Corps generally had a “bad rap” while with the Army of the Potomac. They were derisively called “flying Dutchmen” by the nativists of the army. How much this was due to their actual performance and how much due to poor leadership on the part Uh-Oh Howard and innate bias by the Federal officers in the Army of the Potomac is a mute point. When XI Corps was transferred to the western theatre, where German immigrant troops were more widespread, they performed far better than when back east.

  2. Pat McCormick Says:

    I see Sigel, in a way, of being a German version of John McClernand: a commander with a mixed (at best) record in field command – albeit one whose record was better than his reputation – but very important in rallying tens of thousands to the cause. if push came to shove I’d rather have mcClernand in command of troops in the field than Sigel, but for command harmony I’d probably rather have Sigel around – McClernand was a major pain.

  3. Tom DeFranco Says:

    So Grant replaced McClernand with an incompetent and then hires the same incompetent again? Is there some sort of extra connection between Ord and Grant?

  4. Dave Powell Says:

    Grant’s willingness to support Ord, despite repeated reasons to dump the guy, is troubling. Grant will give him another chance – or three. He commands the 8th Corps under Sheridan, and eventually the Army of the James. He’s a pure coattail rider, IMO.

    • James F. Epperson Says:

      I don’t recall Ord commanding 8th Corps. He did command 18th Corps after Smith was fired, and then the Army of the James after Butler. Did OK in both commands. A key player in the Appomattox Campaign, IIRC.

      There is an entry on Ord in the second “Grant’s Lieutenants” volume. The man was kinda down on emancipation, which makes having 25th Corps (all USCTs) in his Army of the James a bit amusing.

  5. Nick K. Adams Says:

    Dave, where can I contact you? I was in your Chickamauga group in March. Nick K. Adams

  6. Stefan Papp, Jr. Says:

    See Sigel’s early comments on Grant’s Final Report of Operations in “Der Deutsche Eidgenosse”, 1865, pp. 178. Sigel thought himself unfairly treated by Grant. He felt ignored and degraded to “commander-in-chief of wagons and mules” in the final campaign plan, There are also side blows against Ord for bowing out.

    Btw, I would like to read that book, Mr. Powell.

    Regards from Germany

  7. Chris Evans Says:

    I need to eventually read Engle’s book on Sigel.

    I liked his worked on Buell and goodness knows that was a tough subject to tackle too.


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