General Schurz was one of the products of Lincoln's unfortunate policy of naming political leaders of foreign-born communities to high military posts. By the time of Gettysburg, Schurz outranked all but two division commanders, Newton (who on July 2 would be promoted to corps commander after the death of Reynolds) and Doubleday. Unlike those men, however, Schurz was a novice as a soldier, with no military training. To be sure, there were a few inexperienced civilians who rose to inspiring leadership in the largely volunteer Army of the Potomac. Schurz was not among them. He did, however, acquire competence on the job, and was a diligent soldier.
Schurz was born near Cologne, Germany, the son of a schoolteacher. He was highly educated, studying at the universities in Cologne and Bonn. Because he was a brilliant natural orator, he rose by the age of nineteen to leadership of the revolutionary liberal movement in Bonn. In 1848 he served as a staff officer when the Liberal revolution broke out in Germany. After the defeat of the revolution, he barely escaped execution by the pursuing Prussians, fleeing through a sewer system and making his way to Switzerland. Then, in an exploit of romantic daring and unselfish heroism that remains the revolution's most legendary single incident, he returned to Germany in disguise, rescued his beloved teacher from Spandau prison and spirited him out of the country.
Schurz migrated to France, to England, and finally came with his wife to America in 1852. He settled in Wisconsin as a farmer in 1855, but soon began a political and oratorical career as an anti-slavery man, showing the same passion he had given to the revolution in Europe. By 1860 he headed the Wisconsin delegation to the Republican National Convention in Chicago. For his support of Lincoln in the 1860 election, Lincoln wrote to Schurz, "to the extent of our limited acquaintance, no man stands nearer my heart than yourself," and made him minister to Spain. By January 1862 Schurz was more interested in the exciting events back in the U.S., however, and returned to press for emancipation and seek a general's commission. Lincoln at first refused the latter, but finally relented and made Schurz a brigadier general of volunteers on April 15, 1862. This was a baldly political move designed to encourage German-American support for the war, but Lincoln's high opinion of Schurz's abilities undoubtedly played a part. Schurz's very first appointment, in June 1862, was to the head of an entire division, which raised eyebrows. (He replaced fellow German refugee Brig. Gen. Louis Blenker, whose only fault had been lack of success against Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign.) The next year, in another move which angered many who were more competent and more experienced, not to mention senior in rank, he was promoted (over them) to major general in March 1863.
No one denied that Schurz took his military duties very seriously, or that his personal courage was beyond question, but his first experience under fire was a disaster--at Freeman's Ford during the Second Bull Run Campaign in August 1862, one of his brigades was decimated. A week later, however, he showed some ability at the head of his division in the Battle of Second Bull Run.
In his only other combat experience, at Chancellorsville in May 1863, Schurz's division performed poorly in the rout of the Eleventh Corps, though Schurz himself had tried to alert new corps commander Maj. Gen. O.O. Howard to the peril on his flank. After that debacle, he was horrified by press criticism of the German troops and particularly his own division for their confusion and panic--he took pains to point out that it was Brig. Gen. Charles Devens's First Division that was driven back, not his.
With his thick spectacles, broad forehead, tousled brown hair and reddish beard, lanky frame, and gentlemanly demeanor, Carl Schurz at thirty-four looked like a college professor. But he was a force of nature--charming and animated, gay and vivacious, and always a commanding presence with his gift for oratory. Unfortunately, he overplayed his part, tending to see himself as the spokesman for every German in the Eleventh Corps. After a while, his overbearing, self-righteous attitude created problems with his superiors. At the time of Gettysburg, Howard was rightly convinced that Schurz was using his influence with Lincoln to have Franz Sigel returned to the head of the corps.
Schurz still commanded his original division in the summer of 1863. Despite the fact that he was a novice, more a figurehead than a combat soldier, his political influence continued to be enormous, particularly wherever there were large numbers of German-Americans.
| At 10:30 A.M. on July 1, Schurz, riding at the head of his division as
it marched toward Gettysburg, received a dispatch from Howard that the First
Corps was fighting west of Gettysburg. He was ordered to rush his corps
forward and assume command of the Eleventh Corps.|
Schurz galloped ahead and reached Howard on Cemetery Hill about 11:30 A.M. Howard explained that the First Corps needed the Eleventh Corps to occupy the high ground on its right flank, near Oak Hill, northwest of town. When Schurz's (now Schimmelfennig's) division came up around 12:30 P.M. in a sweat from double-quicking the last several miles to the battlefield, Schurz led them forward through town toward Oak Hill. As Schurz rode toward the hill, the first big problem of the day then became apparent: Rodes's 8,000 -man Confederate division had gotten there first. Schurz would have to push them off the hill to take it.
As he completed deploying Schimmelfennig's division to face Oak Hill, Schurz received word from Howard that a large enemy force was now approaching from the northeast. Barlow's division came through town at about that time, and with instructions from Howard--but without talking to Schurz, who was busy near Oak Hill--Barlow posted his men too far forward on the right of Schimmelfennig. In the position Barlow chose, there was a gap between him and Schimmelfennig which uncovered his left, and his right flank was completely exposed to the enemy force approaching from the northeast. Before Schurz could do anything to remedy the situation, Early's division struck Barlow's right rear just as Rodes struck from Oak Hill. Schurz's line crumbled quickly. Schurz's horse was shot under him, and both Eleventh Corps divisions tumbled back through Gettysburg, losing almost 50% of their men, half of them captured in the retreat through town. It had become another humiliating rout for the Eleventh Corps.
The fault had not been Schurz's. He had shown energy and stayed at the front with his men. He was not responsible for Barlow's fatal position, except that he had missed an important interview with Barlow when that officer was hurrying his division onto the field. But the stain that covered the Eleventh Corps covered him too. He retained his division when the Eleventh Corps was sent to Chattanooga that fall, but resigned from the army early the next year.
For further reading:
Schurz, Carl. The Reminiscences of Carl Schurz. 3 Vols. New York, 1907-8
_____, Intimate Letters of. . . . [ed. by Joseph Schafer] Madison, 1928
Trefousse, Hans J. Carl Schurz: A Biography. Knoxville, 1982