Colonel von Gilsa was a former Prussian officer who had been a major in the Schleswig-Holstein War of 1848-50. After immigrating to New York City, he had supported himself by lecturing, singing, and playing piano in music halls along the Bowery.

In view of his European service, Von Gilsa had been commissioned colonel of the 41st New York volunteer regiment before First Bull Run, where his regiment was in reserve and missed the fighting. His first combat experience on this continent came in the Shenandoah Campaign in the spring of 1862. There he was severely wounded at the climactic battle of Cross Keys on June 8. While convalescing, he missed the Battle of Second Bull Run in August. His brigade leader, Brig. Gen. Julius Stahel, was promoted to division command after the latter battle, so when von Gilsa returned to duty in September, he was put at the head of the brigade, which was by then part of the Eleventh Corps, in the Army of the Potomac. The entire corps was manning the defenses of Washington when the Battle of Antietam was being fought, and was also not present for the Battle of Fredericksburg, so von Gilsa had a long time to wait before his first test in combat as a brigade leader.

Then, in May 1863, came the disaster at Chancellorsville. Von Gilsa's men were at the extreme right flank of the entire Union army when Jackson's whole corps came crashing down on them, and after the panic that resulted, 265 men of the brigade never returned to the brigade's roster. The fault was not von Gilsa's--when he took news of Confederates massing on his flank to corps headquarters, he had been received with taunts--but it was with this humiliating rout fresh in his mind that he approached Gettysburg two months later.

Von Gilsa was notorious for his genius for profanity in his native German. As a witness put it, "When in difficult straits he was wont to be overcome by a lingual diarrhoea of sonorous expletives in the Bismarckian vernacular." Eleventh Corps chief Maj. Gen. O.O. Howard discovered the extent of von Gilsa's gift when to two crossed paths on the bitter retreat from Chancellorsville--when Howard characterisically reminded the German officer to depend on God, von Gilsa poured out a stream of oaths in German with such vehemence and in such profusion that Howard thought he had gone insane. The description of von Gilsa that Howard wrote later: "a German soldier, who at parades and drills makes a fine soldierly appearance"--begs the reader to understand that he considered von Gilsa ineffectual, a toy soldier.

Howard's appraisal was echoed by his new hand-picked division commander, the ferocious Brig. Gen. Francis Barlow. In particular, von Gilsa was not as strict a disciplinarian as his new superior would have liked. Barlow placed the Prussian colonel under arrest on the march north to Gettysburg for allowing more than one man at a time to leave the column to get water.

At Gettysburg
About 1:00 P.M. on July 1, as Barlow's division was trotting through the streets of Gettysburg to take their places north of town, Barlow relented and restored von Gilsa to command. The colonel's return was witnessed by a Gettysburg resident:

Past our house came, running at the double quick, Howard's eleventh army corps. They kept the pace without breaking ranks; but they flowed through and out into the battlefield beyond, a human tide, at millrace speed. Far down the road, behind the passing regiments, a roar of cheers began. It rolled forward, faster than the running of the men who made it--like some high surge sweeping across the surface of a flowing sea. Its roar of cheering neared and neared, until we saw a group of officers coming at a brisk trot, with the mighty cheer always at their horses' heels. Among them rode one man in colonel's uniform who held his head high and smiled. He was an officer, a favorite with the soldiers, who had been under arrest until the eve of the battle. Now, released he was on his way into action, and the whole brigade that knew him was greeting him with the chorus of the lungs.

Pushed forward by Barlow to Blocher's (later called "Barlow's") Knoll soon after he had rejoined his men, von Gilsa found himself in a dangerous position, exposed on both flanks. While Doles's Georgians menaced his front, Gordon's Georgians swooped down on his right. Within minutes Von Gilsa's entire brigade was in full flight, back through the streets of Gettysburg. Von Gilsa had one horse shot from under him, but jumped onto another and desperately tried to stem the retreat. One soldier saw him ride "up and down that line through a regular storm of lead, meantime using the German epithets so common to him." An admiring Confederate soldier remembered, "Their officers were cheering their men on and behaving like heroes and commanders of the 'first water.'" The skedaddle did not end before it reached Cemetery Hill.

The next evening, July 2, von Gilsa's unfortunate brigade was again the target of a desperate Rebel attack. Now sited on the northeast face of Cemetery Hill, von Gilsa's men were yet again sent flying, this time by Hays's Louisianans. The Union batteries on the hill, supported by Carroll's brigade brought over from the Second Corps, eventually drove the Confederates back.

Having failed to hold his position three times in his two major battles, von Gilsa never fought another--Brig. Gen. George Gordon, who replaced the wounded Barlow, had the much-maligned division transferred to the coastal islands of South Carolina two weeks after Gettysburg, and von Gilsa reverted to the command of his old regiment. He held several posts in South Carolina and later in the Washington defenses. However, he was never promoted--von Gilsa began and ended the war as a colonel.

Excerpted from "The Generals of Gettysburg: The Leaders of America's Greatest Battle" by Larry Tagg