The Civil War's Most Inept Commander

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:56

    Stephen Douglas Engle, Sigel's sole biographer, wrote, "What was curious about him was not what he did, but his exalted status for what he failed to do." He was born in the German principality of Baden on Nov. 24, 1824. In 1843, Sigel graduated with honors from the Military School at Carlsruhe, received his lieutenant's commission and served Grand Duke Leopold with distinction until 1847, when he was challenged to a duel over his liberal politics. As an officer, he could not refuse. He fatally wounded his opponent and resigned his commission.

    The European rebellions of 1848 are comparable in our times only to the 1968 student revolts. Sigel became war minister in Baden's revolutionary government. The Prussians invaded to restore the old order. He lost all three of his battles and retreated to Switzerland. In exile, he revealed his true genius: public relations. As self-publicizing journalist and orator, Sigel transformed his image from the failure who had lost every battle into that of a legendary hero. Meanwhile, he survived by playing piano in a sideshow.

    In 1852, he came to New York, where he taught, published a weekly newspaper and joined the state militia. He also organized German athletic and cultural societies, creating and maintaining friendships among German immigrant leaders throughout the major Eastern cities, and published articles in German-language newspapers. In 1857, he moved to St. Louis, when the German-American Institute appointed him instructor in mathematics and history.

    Sigel was about 5 feet, 7 inches tall and weighed about 145 pounds. In youth, his hair was coal black. He carried himself like a soldier, with a piercing gaze and firm handshake. Though terse and humorless, the man whom West Pointers called "the block of ice" moved and inspired his German-speaking audiences. He came to incarnate their hopes for winning honor and advancement in their new country.

    On May 4, 1861, the Third Missouri Infantry elected him its colonel; six days later, he helped suppress Missouri's attempted secession to the Confederacy. His first independent command, at the Battle of Carthage, was marked, as usual, by defeat, but the press made him look good. On Aug. 10, 1861, as a newly minted brigadier general, Sigel contributed to the Union defeat at Wilson's Creek by the inept handling of his command, who were routed by two companies of Louisiana volunteers. Yet again, he was widely praised in the press. This stemmed from brilliant media manipulation. He mastered the exclusive interview and the news leak, and hand-delivered his dispatches to friendly reporters to get his version of events out first.

    Thus Sigel's career bloomed. When he was passed over for independent field command in December 1861, he offered his resignation in protest. Public support from thousands of immigrants convinced his superiors not to accept the resignation they had initially received with joy. Thus, he commanded two divisions at Pea Ridge, AR, where he did not foul up. Friendly newspapers consequently proclaimed him a military genius, and Sigel received his second star on March 21, 1862.

    He was transferred to Virginia. Mobs of adoring fans lionized him during his train journey from Missouri. There were popular comic songs:

    I've come shust now to tells you how I goes mit regimentals, To schlauch dem foes of Liberty, Like de old Continentals Vot fights mit England, long ago To save de Yankee eagle; Un now I gets mine sojer clothes, Ve goes to fight mit Sigel. Chorus:

    Yaw! daus is drue, I shpeaks mit you, Ve goes to fight mit Sigel. Sigel's modest performance as a corps commander under Major Gen. John Pope was nearly overlooked after Pope's debacle at Second Manassas in August 1862. The German was shunted into insignificant posts where he could do no harm. However, Franz Sigel was unsatisfied with prestige. He wanted glory. As the 1864 presidential election approached, he lobbied for a major command. He got the Dept. of West Virginia, effective Mar. 29, 1864. Gen. U.S. Grant, the Union commander, ordered Sigel to advance upon Staunton, VA, to cut the Virginia Central Railroad and threaten Lee's left flank. Sigel's opposite number, the Confederate commander of the Western Dept. of Virginia, Major Gen. John C. Breckinridge, had been appointed to his command barely a month earlier. Breckinridge had been the youngest vice president of the United States at 35. At 39, a reluctant presidential nominee, he had nonetheless run second to Lincoln in electoral votes. The Union expelled him to the Confederacy by ordering his arrest for his principled opposition to the war. In anger and frustration, Breckinridge accepted a general's commission in the Confederate army, a decision he later called the greatest mistake of his life.

    In the spring of 1864, he was only 43 years old. Although Breckinridge was not a professional soldier, he learned from experience, and did not make the same mistake twice. Basil Duke, one of his subordinates, wrote that Breckinridge "had unquestionably a remarkable sagacity in all matters pertaining to actual warfare... His courage and resolution were superb... Along with his stronger and more virile qualities was an exceeding amiability of temper and an admirable self-control."

    Not the least of Breckinridge's lesser gifts were his attractive physical presence and magnificent horsemanship. His style was famously smooth and graceful: "General Breckinridge galloped past, riding like a Cid," observed a cadet. Years later, a particularly dashing Union cavalry officer, on being called the nation's handsomest man on horseback, replied, "You never saw John Breckinridge."

    With Sigel's carelessness about security, the Confederates soon learned he would advance. Breckinridge commanded some 5500 Confederate regulars and militia. Against this, Sigel commanded about 8940 Union veterans: good troops, well rested, well supplied.

    Sigel began a leisurely advance on May 1, opposed only by skirmishing Rebel cavalrymen. Though effectively unimpeded, he advanced only 65 miles in two weeks. On May 5, he held maneuvers, sending forth a regiment as skirmishers. Then he forgot it. At the end of the day, the army counted its casualties: "Killed, none; wounded, none; missing, the 34th Massachusetts Infantry."

    Confederate raiders began plundering Sigel's supply lines. He pulled his scouts from reconnaissance to escort the wagon trains. Thus, he advanced blindly into enemy country. He let his forces string out: eventually, 19 miles of muddy road divided his command. Meanwhile, Breckinridge had united his forces, moving swiftly by rail and on foot. He was still short of men, and even accepted the services of 261 cadets from Virginia Military Institute, the renowned VMI. The cadets marched 160 miles in four days to reach the front.

    On May 14, Sigel's forces encountered a Confederate cavalry screen?the human equivalent of radar?about eight miles north of New Market, VA. As Sigel pressed south, the Rebel horsemen gave ground while sending information on his forces to Breckinridge.

    By 6 a.m. of the next day, Breckinridge and his artillery were on Shirley's Hill, the high ground about a mile southwest of New Market. The Confederate cavalry feinted against the Union forces, trying to spark a fight, even as Breckinridge's infantry marched and countermarched just within sight of the enemy to create the illusion of greater numbers. It worked. Sigel disregarded his intelligence reports to believe Breckinridge was commanding 9000 men. Some of Sigel's subordinates believed there were 20,000 Confederates on the field.

    Breckinridge gazed down from Shirley's Hill. He opened his watch, turned to his commanders and said, "It is 11 o'clock. I have offered him battle and he declines to advance on us." He paused. "I shall advance on him."

    Breckinridge's basic battle plan never varied, largely because it always worked, and he used it at New Market. His cavalry flanked Sigel's front line to cut him off from the rear even as his infantry pressed them from the front. By 12:30 p.m., Breckinridge had taken New Market and continued advancing. Around 1:30, he rode forward with his field artillery. A conventional commander used cannon merely to soften up the enemy before an attack. Instead, Breckinridge used them as skirmishers, the most mobile part of his offense, often moving through and ahead of his infantry, advancing, firing and advancing again. This was revolutionary. It also worked.

    Sigel's first line fell back in disorder, running through his second line and throwing it into confusion. Breckinridge handled his outnumbered troops so well that now, as he began his general advance in mid-afternoon, he had more troops in combat than Sigel. At this moment, a Union artillery battery blasted a hole in Breckinridge's line with grapeshot and canister. His only reserve was the VMI cadets. Breckinridge turned to his aide de camp, Major Charles Semple, with tears in his eyes. "Put the boys in, and may God forgive me for the order."

    An aide galloped up to the commandant of cadets with the orders. The cadets cheered. Then, in perfect order, they advanced, closing their ranks as cadets began dropping from Union fire. They plugged the gap and then advanced with the rest of Breckinridge's line through mud that sucked the shoes from their feet.

    Sigel tried to organize a counterattack. In his excitement he began barking orders in German, making his commands incomprehensible.

    The cadets drove toward a battery. The Union artillerists fired to nearly the last moment before limbering up, leaving one gun behind. The boys swarmed over the field piece, and it was over. Ten cadets died; 47 were wounded. Breckinridge rode up, encrusted with mud, and called out, "Well done, Virginians!" A cadet replied, "That's very nice, general, but where's the commissary wagon?"

    Sigel began firing off reports. The New York Tribune for May 18, 1864, even printed the headline "Sigel Whips the Rebels At New Market." He grossly inflated Breckinridge's forces and described his retreat as a "retrograde movement." Meanwhile, the feline Union chief of staff, Henry Halleck, wired Gen. Grant, "...Sigel is already in full retreat... If you expect anything from him you will be mistaken. He will do nothing but run. He never did anything else." Then he inquired whether Gen. Grant felt the Dept. of West Virginia needed a new commander. Grant telegraphed: By all means... appoint...anyone else to the command of West Virginia.

    On May 19, 1864, Sigel was relieved of command. He edited and published German weeklies in Baltimore and then New York for the rest of his long life. In 1869, the Republicans nominated him for secretary of state of the state of New York. He campaigned against prohibition, arguing that lager was God-sent, and asked the immigrants to stand up and "fights mit Sigel again." As usual, he lost.

    He died Aug. 22, 1902. More than 25,000 followed his coffin to Woodlawn Cemetery. Five years later, a magnificent parade marked his monument's unveiling on Riverside Dr. Behind the mounted police and the soldiers marched the Grand Army of the Republic and dozens of German societies, from the Deutsche Liederkranz to the Vereinigung Deutsche Demokraten des Bronx and the New Yorker Deutscher Apothker Verein.

    Franz Sigel exemplifies how not to do it. Yet, his career was not without glory?for others. Every 15th of May, the VMI Corps of Cadets march in review, bayonets fixed, to the roll of muffled drums. The color party carries the school flag that their predecessors followed to New Market. Then the adjutant barks 10 names, as in roll call: Cabell, Atwill, Crockett, Hartsfield, Haynes, Jefferson, Jones, McDowell, Stanard and Wheelwright. After each name, from the ranks before him, comes the response, "Died! Upon the field of honor, sir!"