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A Man Of Conscience
In an era when political morality had sunk low, an immigrant, Carl Schurz, helped rally the republic to its ancient ideals
February 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 2
Certainly his gratuitous volunteering for front-line duty was the gesture of a brave man. Yet there is among his papers a letter written at the time which indicates how difficult it is for a biographer to sort out and evaluate Schurz’s motives. “I shall return to my old activities [after the war],” he wrote to a friend, “with the satisfaction not only of having labored definitely for the future of this country, but also of having loyally shared its fate. In the political phases of the new developments which this revolution must produce, I shall undoubtedly have an important part and my voice will be heard.” Pride and humility, selflessness and ambition: the elements are hopelessly mixed up in this extraordinarily complicated man. This much seems certain: if sometimes the pride dominated, one must remember that his was not an age of giants, and it would have been difficult for a first-class man like Schurz not to appreciate his own worth; if ambition burned hot within him, it must be said that he used whatever position it brought him to promote the common weal.
Schurz was a “political general,” one of that breed so thickly represented on the Union Army’s roster of high-ranking officers. He had received his commission partly because of his position in the Republican party, partly because of his prominence among the German-Americans. But he seems to have been at least a competent field commander, better than most of those who owed their stars to something besides military training and experience.
Assigned at first to Frémont in the Shenandoah Valley, he eventually ended up with Major General Oliver Otis Howard’s XI Corps, fifteen of whose twenty-six regiments were made up of German-Americans like himself. The rest of the Army never quite accepted them. Under Frémont, the Germans had a string of bad luck. Then for a time they were commanded by Franz Sigel, like Schurz a forty-eighter, and if their luck got no better at least their morale rose. “I fights mit Sigel,” they would say when asked what outfit they were from, and they said it with pride. They were under Schurz’s command at Chancellorsville, where “Fighting Joe” Hooker allowed them to be isolated on the right flank, at the precise spot where Stonewall Jackson, after a brilliant encircling maneuver, struck by surprise at sunset. The Germans, like the rest of Hooker’s army, were caught off guard, and with no reserves to back them up they fled. After that their proud boast became, on the lips of the other soldiers in the corps, “I fights mit Sigel und runs mit Schurz.”
At Gettysburg they did a little better, though again success eluded them. Ordered to hold Cemetery Hill, Schurz did the best he could, but when his 17,000 men were attacked by some 30,000 under Ewell and A. P. Hill, they were forced to give ground; the 75th Pennsylvania alone had lost 111 men in fifteen minutes. The position was untenable. After Gettysburg the hard-luck XI Corps was broken up, but the hard luck clung to Schurz: he got into a hassle with Hooker again, this time over a mix-up in orders. Schurz demanded, and got, an official court of inquiry which exonerated him, but three strikes was out: Schurz, by this time a major general, was sent to command a Nashville recruiting station that a major might have managed. He was being shelved. Through Andrew Johnson, whom he met in Tennessee, Schurz sought another field command, but Lincoln replied to Johnson: “You can never know … how difficult it is to find a place for an officer of so high a rank when there is no place seeking him.” He did manage to see some service under Sherman in the Carolinas, but for all intents and purposes his fighting days were over. On May 1, 1865, he returned to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where his wife and family had spent the war on a farm owned by one of his comrades of ’48. To a friend Schurz wrote: “The uniform has been laid aside, the sword hangs on the wall. The children play with the riding-whip and spurs.”
Seldom had his financial situation been so precarious. He was finding it difficult to meet the mortgage payments on his farm at Watertown, and not long after his return to civilian life some speculations in railroad lands failed, leaving him $5,000 in debt. In 1867 the mortgage was foreclosed, making his ruin complete.
At this low point came an offer to go into the newspaper business with Dr. Emil Preetorius, editor of a successful German-language daily, Die Westliche Post , in St. Louis. The terms were generous: Schurz was not expected to put up any capital, but was to be permitted to pay for his partnership over a three-year period out of his share of the profits. He snapped up the offer, and moved his family—by this time there were three daughters, Agathe, Marianne, and Emma—to St. Louis. As if to balance the good fortune, tragedy struck: Emma, the youngest girl, died suddenly. Mrs. Schurz, whose health had been delicate ever since her marriage, was prostrated. Partly to recover her physical well-being and partly to seek good schools for the two older girls, she sailed for an extended visit to Germany.
It was by no means the first time she had been back to her native land since that bright September day in 1852 when she and her new husband had so buoyantly saluted the New World. Indeed, she seems never to have made the adjustment to America. As a young girl she had apparently been much pampered by her parents. Once she was settled in comfortable German-American surroundings in Philadelphia, it had taken all Schurz’s cleverness to cajole her into going west.