Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,595

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,595


This is the grave of Franz Sigel.

Born in 1824 in Sinsheim, Baden, in modern Germany, Sigel grew up in the militaristic culture of that place and time, though at least he wasn’t Prussian. He went to military schools and became a lieutenant in the army of the Grand Duchy of Baden. But this was the late 1840s, a revolutionary moment. Sigel got caught up in the fervor and joined the revolutionaries. He became a colonel in the revolutionary forces in Baden in 1848. He was good at it too. He recruited 4,000 volunteers to launch a siege against the city of Freiburg. Of course his forces lost against the better armed regular army, but he was a romantic guy and was going to put his ideals to the test in the field.

But in Baden, the revolutionaries actually won, for a minute. Sigel had been wounded in the war, but he was Secretary of War for the new government. He was supposed to be commander of the armies as well, but his injury got in the way and he instead became an advisor to the not injured Pole, Ludwik Mierosławski. But the Prussians were on the war path. There was no way they were going to let these revolutionaries rule one of the German duchies and they pushed them out later in 1849. Sigel led the retreat of the revolutionary troops to Switzerland. With nothing to really do there, the hopes of European revolutionaries dashed for the time being, he emigrated to the United States in 1852. Lots of the German revolutionaries did this.

At first, Sigel taught German in New York schools. He also joined the state militia but it did not seem the U.S. could really use an experienced military man like Sigel. He moved to St, Louis in 1857 to run the German-American Institute there. In 1860, he became director of the city’s public schools. He was likely to live a life that was dedicated to his love of education.

But then the South committed treason in defense of slavery.

Sigel was disgusted by slavery. He saw it in St. Louis of course. It disturbed this revolutionary man greatly. He immediately volunteered to fight the slavers and was commissioned as a colonel in the 3rd Missouri Infantry. Now this was the era of the politician-general. Mostly this was a disaster. These people were largely incompetent in the field. It would take almost the whole war to figure out to move around these people. Sigel had actual military experience. But honestly, he was not very good at the job. But, he was super popular in the German community in a border state, which was critical to keeping Missouri in the Union. So Abraham Lincoln named Sigel a brigadier general in August 1861.

Sigel was involved in leading troops in the early battles in the West. Most of the time, they faired poorly. He led federal troops in the Battle of Carthage against Confederate troops led by the…actual governor of Missouri. That didn’t go very well and they had to retreat. His troops were pretty well routed at Wilson’s Creek. His shaky reputation did receive a shot in the arm at Pea Ridge, a critical early battle in the West, in which he directed the Union artillery in finishing off the Confederates.

Now seen as good at being a general again, Lincoln promoted Sigel to major general after Pea Ridge. He was also moved to Virginia. He commanded a division in the Shenandoah Valley, in which he tried to go after Stonewall Jackson’s traitors, but despite outnumbered them, he wasn’t able to do much. At Second Manassas, Sigel took a shot to the hand and didn’t do much there either.

In fact, by 1863, Sigel was largely isolated as a soldier. Serving in Virginia had proven to all the leading generals that he was not a man you wanted in the field. He had a reputation for getting his soldiers killed in unreasonable numbers, even by Civil War standards. On the other hand, he was the most prominent German in the Army and since the Germans were overwhelmingly for the Union and actually wanted to fight treason in defense of slavery (again, many of them were politically refugees after 1848), you couldn’t just get rid of him. Sigel was an excellent recruiter and fundraiser in the German community.

Ambrose Burnside didn’t do much of value when he was commanding Union troops, but he did figure out the Sigel problem. He created what were called grand divisions, made up of two corps. Sigel already commanded the XI Corps, which were the Germans. So he gave another to Sigel and created the Reserve Grand Division. So at Fredericksburg, his men were there, but they saw no action because the leading generals just weren’t going to call Sigel into battle if they didn’t have to.

Meanwhile, Sigel knew he was being isolated and so he resigned from XI Corps in February 1863. It’s not entirely clear why, but the most likely is being disgruntled with the other generals. Lincoln still couldn’t totally get rid of him. Henry Halleck, who personally despised Sigel, kept him spinning his wheels in Pennsylvania for a year, but in 1864, Lincoln named Sigel in charge of the new Department of West Virginia.

Sigel was excited to lead troops again. It did not go well. He launched the Shenandoah Campaign. But at the first major battle, the Battle of New Market, John C. Breckinridge kicked his ass, and mostly with green recruits from Virginia Military Institute. He was replaced soon after and was a general without a command for the rest of the war.

After the war, Sigel resigned his commission and moved to Baltimore for a brief stint as a newspaper editor before moving again, to New York. He would remain in New York for the rest of his life, outside of his lectures that he would give about the war and such. He ran for Secretary of State for the state of New York in 1869, but lost. He became the city’s collector of internal revenue in 1871 and in 1887, Grover Cleveland threw him a better bone and named him pension agent for the city. He also published the New York Monthly, a magazine for German-Americans.

Sigel died in 1902. He was 77 years old.

Franz Sigel is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery, The Bronx, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other Civil War generals, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. William Tecumseh Sherman is in St. Louis and Daniel Sickles is in Arlington. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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