American Civil War: Major General Carl Schurz

Carl Schurz during the Civil War
Major General Carl Schurz. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Carl Schurz - Early Life & Career:

Born March 2, 1829 near Cologne, Rhenish Prussia (Germany), Carl Schurz was the son of Christian and Marianne Schurz.  The product of a schoolteacher and a journalist, Schurz initially attended the Jesuit Gymnasium of Cologne but was forced leave a year before graduation due to his family's financial problems.  Despite this setback, he secured his diploma via a special exam and commenced study at the University of Bonn.  Developing a close friendship with Professor Gottfried Kinkel, Schurz became engaged in the revolutionary liberal movement that was sweeping through Germany in 1848.  Taking up arms in support of this cause, he met future fellow Union generals Franz Sigel and Alexander Schimmelfennig. 

Serving as a staff officer in the revolutionary forces, Schurz was captured by the Prussians in 1849 when the fortress of Rastatt fell.  Escaping, he traveled south to safety in Switzerland.  Learning that his mentor Kinkel was being held at Spandau prison in Berlin, Schurz slipped into Prussia in late 1850 and facilitated his escape.  After a brief stay in France, Schurz moved to London in 1851.  While there, he married Margarethe Meyer, an early advocate of the kindergarten system.  Shortly afterwards, the couple departed for the United States and arrived in August 1852.  Initially living in Philadelphia, they soon moved west to Watertown, WI.   

Carl Schurz - Political Rise:

Improving his English, Schurz quickly became active in politics through the newly-formed Republican Party.  Speaking out against enslavement, he gained a following among the immigrant communities in Wisconsin and was an unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor in 1857.  Traveling south the following year, Schurz spoke to German-American communities on behalf of Abraham Lincoln's campaign for US Senate in Illinois.  Passing the bar exam in 1858, he commenced practicing law in Milwaukee and increasingly became a national voice for the party due to his appeal to immigrant voters.  Attending the 1860 Republican National Convention in Chicago, Schurz served as the spokesman of the delegation from Wisconsin.

Carl Schurz - The Civil War Begins:

With the election of Lincoln that fall, Schurz received an appointment to serve as US Ambassador to Spain.  Assuming the post in July 1861, shortly after the start of the Civil War, he worked to ensure that Spain remained neutral and did not provide aid to the Confederacy.  Eager to be part of the events unfolding at home, Schurz left his post in December and returned to the United States in January 1862.  Immediately traveling to Washington, he pressed Lincoln to advance the issue of emancipation as well as give him a military commission.  Though the president resisted the latter, he ultimately appointed Schurz a brigadier general on April 15.  A purely political move, Lincoln hoped to win additional support in German-American communities.

Carl Schurz - Into Battle:

Given command of a division in Major General John C. Frémont's forces in the Shenandoah Valley in June, Schurz's men then moved east to join Major General John Pope's newly-created Army of Virginia.  Serving in Sigel's I Corps, he made his combat debut at Freeman's Ford in late August.  Performing poorly, Schurz saw one of his brigades suffer heavy losses.  Recovering from this outing, he showed better on August 29 when his men mounted determined, but unsuccessful assaults against Major General A.P. Hill's division at the Second Battle of Manassas.  That fall, Sigel's corps was re-designated XI Corps and remained on the defensive in front of Washington, DC.  As a result, it did not take part in the Battles of Antietam or Fredericksburg.  In early 1863, command of the corps passed to Major General Oliver O. Howard as Sigel departed due to a dispute with new army commander Major General Joseph Hooker.     

Carl Schurz - Chancellorsville & Gettysburg:

In March 1863, Schurz received a promotion to major general.  This caused some ire in the Union ranks due to its political nature and his performance relative to his peers.  In early May, Schurz's men were positioned along the Orange Turnpike facing south as Hooker conducted the opening moves of the Battle of Chancellorsville.  To Schurz's right, the division of Brigadier General Charles Devens, Jr. represented the right flank of the army.  Not anchored on any type of natural obstacle, this force was preparing for dinner around 5:30 PM on May 2 when it was surprised attacked by Lieutenant General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's corps.  As Devens' men fled east, Schurz was able to realign his men to meet the threat.  Badly outnumbered, his division was overwhelmed and he was forced to order a retreat around 6:30 PM.  Falling back, his division played little role in the rest of the battle. 

Carl Schurz - Gettysburg:

The following month, Schurz's division and the rest of XI Corps moved north as the Army of the Potomac pursued General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia towards Pennsylvania.  Though a diligent officer, Schurz became increasingly overbearing during this time leading Howard to correctly guess that his subordinate was lobbying Lincoln to have Sigel returned to XI Corps.  Despite the tension between the two men, Schurz moved quickly on July 1 when Howard sent him a dispatch stating that Major General John Reynolds' I Corps was engaged at Gettysburg.  Riding ahead he met with Howard on Cemetery Hill around 10:30 AM.  Informed that Reynolds was dead, Schurz assumed command of XI Corps as Howard took overall control of Union forces on the field.

Directed to deploy his men north of town to the right of I Corps, Schurz ordered his division (now led by Schimmelfennig) to secure Oak Hill.  Finding it occupied by Confederate forces, he also saw the XI Corps division of Brigadier General Francis Barlow arrive and form too far forward of Schimmelfennig's right.  Before Schurz could address this gap, the two XI Corps divisions came under attack from the divisions of Major General Robert Rodes and Jubal A. Early.  Though he showed energy in organizing a defense, Schurz's men were overwhelmed and driven back through the town with around 50% losses.  Re-forming on Cemetery Hill, he resumed command of his division and aided in repelling a Confederate attack against the heights the next day.   

Carl Schurz - Ordered West:    

In September 1863, XI and XII Corps were ordered west to aid the beleaguered Army of the Cumberland after its defeat at the Battle of Chickamauga.  Under the leadership of Hooker, the two corps reached Tennessee and took part in Major General Ulysses S. Grant's campaign to lift the siege of Chattanooga.  During the resulting Battle of Chattanooga in late November, Schurz's division operated on the Union left in support of Major General William T. Sherman's forces.  In April 1864, XI and XII Corps were combined into XX Corps.  As part of this reorganization, Schurz left his division to oversee a Corps of Instruction in Nashville.

In this post briefly, Schurz took leave to serve as an orator on behalf of Lincoln's reelection campaign.  Seeking to return to active duty following the election that fall, he had difficulty securing a command.  Finally obtaining a post as chief of staff in Major General Henry Slocum's Army of Georgia, Schurz saw service in the Carolinas during the final months of the war.  With the end of hostilities, he was tasked by President Andrew Johnson with conducting a tour of the South to assess conditions throughout the region.  Returning to private life, Schurz operated a newspaper in Detroit before moving to St. Louis.

Carl Schurz - Politician:

Elected to the US Senate in 1868, Schurz advocated fiscal responsibility and anti-imperialism.  Breaking with the Grant Administration in 1870, he helped start the Liberal Republican movement.  Overseeing the party's convention two years later, Schurz campaigned for its presidential nominee, Horace Greeley.  Defeated in 1874, Schurz returned to newspapers until appointed Secretary of the Interior by President Rutherford B. Hayes three years later.  In this role, he worked to reduce racism towards Native Americans on the frontier, fought to keep the Office of Indian Affairs in his department, and advocated for a merit-based system of advancement in the civil service.

Leaving office in 1881, Schurz settled in New York City and aided in overseeing several newspapers.  After serving as a representative of the Hamburg American Steamship Company from 1888 to 1892, he accepted a position as president of the National Civil Service Reform League. Active in attempts to modernize the civil service, he remained an outspoken anti-imperialist.  This saw him speak out against the Spanish-American War and lobby President William McKinley against annexing land taken during the conflict.  Remaining engaged in politics into the early 20th century, Schurz died in New York City on May 14, 1906.  His remains were interred at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, NY.           

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Carl Schurz." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). American Civil War: Major General Carl Schurz. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Major General Carl Schurz." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 11, 2023).