Franz Sigel was born on November 18, 1824, in Sinsheim, in the Grand Duchy of Baden, in what is now Germany. He was educated at the Classical School at Bruchsal and at the Military Academy at Karsruhe, from which he graduated in 1843. He was appointed a lieutenant in the 4th Infantry, but resigned his commission to help lead the revolutionary forces of 1848. Although still quite young, Sigel earned a reputation for charismatic leadership and courage in battle, but—in a foreshadowing of his Civil War career—it soon became clear that he was more successful at politics than at war. After the insurrection was crushed by the Prussians, Sigel fled first to Switzerland and then to France. He met with the German political theorist Friedrich Engels and the Italian revolutionaries Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi, as well as several German refugees and the future Civil War generals Carl Schurz, Louis Blenker, and Alexander Schimmelfennig.
Fearing arrest in France, Sigel traveled to England, and there met Engels’s fellow revolutionary Karl Marx and Elsie Dulon, Sigel’s future wife. In May 1852 he moved to New York City, where he worked as a tobacconist, surveyor, teacher, and musician. In 1855 he formed the German-American Institute with his father-in-law, Rudolf Dulon. He taught mathematics, history, and languages, in addition to teaching in the public schools and at the German Turner Society. (The first Turnverein was founded in the United States in 1848 in Cincinnati, Ohio, and mixed physical exercise—Turner is a German word for gymnast—with intellectual development.) Sigel also wrote for the New York Times and was active in the 5th New York Militia.
In 1857, he relocated to Saint Louis, Missouri, to teach at the German-American Institute and there became a school superintendent and, like many so-called Forty-Eighters, joined the Republican Party. German-Americans were an important enough political constituency that in 1860 the Republican presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln, purchased an Illinois-based German-language newspaper, Staats-Anzeiger, for four hundred dollars on the agreement that it would support him. When Lincoln won the election of 1860, the Turners provided his bodyguard at the inauguration. And when war erupted the following year, Lincoln again drew upon the German-American community, this time for military service. There were approximately 500,000 German-Americans of military age in the North, 200,000 of whom, like Sigel, had been born in Germany. Over the course of the war, Lincoln combed the ranks of these Germans for military leaders, with politics sometimes outweighing competence. For instance, when Lincoln promoted Alexander Schimmelfennig to general against the advice of his secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, he explained that “his name will make up for any difference there may be.”
Politics, War, and Controversy
Sigel rallied Germans to the Union in 1861, and the phrase “I goes to fight mit Sigel” became a popular recruiting slogan. He was rewarded by being appointed colonel of the 3rd Missouri Infantry, one of several regiments of ninety-day volunteers raised under the direction of Union general Nathaniel Lyon to expel Confederates from the state. At the Battle of Wilson’s Creek near Springfield, Missouri, on August 10, 1861, Sigel led the Second Missouri Brigade in a difficult and bold flanking maneuver that showcased his bravery but was also a conspicuous failure. Although Lyon was killed, Missouri remained in Union hands and Sigel was appointed brigadier general on August 17 (effective May 17).
Sigel was soon caught up in controversy. His self-promoting description of Wilson’s Creek was challenged by several officers present on the field and he was ridiculed by the Wisconsin newspaper the Janesville Daily Gazette for being “superior in theoretical [tactics], incompetent in battle and hell on retreat.” When his command was given to Samuel R. Curtis in the winter of 1861, Sigel resigned in protest and, in so doing, enjoyed the full support of the German-American community. He returned, however, in time to lead a division at the Battle of Pea Ridge, or Elkhorn Tavern, near Bentonville, Arkansas, on March 7–8, 1862. Outnumbered Union forces under Curtis defeated the Confederates, and Sigel’s supporters credited their man with the victory while Curtis and others argued that his role was overstated.
Sigel was promoted to major general of volunteers on March 21, 1862—likely a political move on Lincoln’s part—and transferred east in May. His fellow German general, Carl Schurz, blamed Sigel’s persistent problems not on his military shortcomings but on the cliquishness of West Pointers: “There is no less professional jealousy among military men than there is among musicians or actors.” One such West Pointer was John Pope, whose Army of Virginia Sigel joined after fighting under Nathaniel P. Banks in the Shenandoah Valley. Sigel was tardy in supporting the Union center attacked by Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson‘s forces at the Battle of Cedar Mountain in Culpeper County on August 9, and Pope was furious with him. Sigel’s claim that he never received his marching orders may have been true, but he still heard the battle raging, even while feeding and resting his men.
The Second Battle of Manassas later that month proved to be the only major battle where Sigel’s performance merited praise. His First Corps opened the fight against Stonewall Jackson on August 29 and helped to repulse Confederate general James Longstreet‘s assault the next day. Yet even here he did not escape controversy. Following the battle, a disaster for Union forces, Pope searched for scapegoats and turned first to Union general Irvin McDowell and then to Fitz John Porter. Sigel became embroiled in the subsequent investigations, and the mutual antipathy between him and McDowell was on full display.
When the Army of Virginia disbanded, Sigel’s First Corps became the Army of the Potomac‘s Eleventh Corps, but Sigel took leave and then, upon returning, complained that his corps was too small. He resigned a second time and, when he was ready to return, the Union army’s general-in-chief, Henry W. Halleck, refused him his old command. As a result, Sigel missed the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, where the Germans of the Eleventh Corps, now led by the Maine evangelical and Union general Oliver O. Howard, fled in the face of Stonewall Jackson’s famous surprise attack. They “run like deer,” a New York soldier remembered bitterly, “saying they wanted Gen. Sigel and no other.” (Germans did not comprise even a majority of the Eleventh Corps, yet the unit’s members were branded the Flying Dutchman, an epithet they earned again on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg in July. Schimmelfennig and Schurz both commanded brigades that day.)
Politics saved Sigel once again. After being assigned to the Department of the Susquehanna in Pennsylvania, Sigel took a more prestigious command in February 1864, this time of the Department of West Virginia, which included the lower (or northern) Shenandoah Valley. At this point, his fellow non-German generals were not particularly enthusiastic about “fighting mit Sigel.” “The Dutch vote must be secured at all hazards for the government,” remarked one staff officer sarcastically, “and the sacrifice of West Virginia is a small matter.” (“Dutch” was an epithet used for Germans, the two languages sounding similar to many Americans.) For support, Sigel gathered as many German-born officers around him as he could, but he had earned the enmity of both Halleck and the new Union general-in-chief, Ulysses S. Grant, for ignoring the proper chain of command. Thus caught between the Confederates at his front and angry superiors at his rear, Sigel survived only so long as he maintained support from the always politically conscious Lincoln.
New Market and After
Charged with marching up the Shenandoah Valley to draw Confederate troops away from Grant’s Overland Campaign against the Confederate capital at Richmond, Sigel began his advance from Martinsburg on April 29, 1864. He faced no serious opposition at his front, but his supply line was harassed by Confederate partisan rangers under Colonel John Singleton Mosby and Captain John McNeill. Confederate cavalry under General John D. Imboden met Sigel’s advance near Mt. Jackson, but fell back slowly, delaying Sigel while Confederate general John C. Breckinridge—the former U.S. vice president and a Democratic candidate for U.S. president in 1860—gathered a force to oppose him. Breckinridge even added about 250 cadets from the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington to his force, planning to keep them in reserve. Their average age was just eighteen.
On Sunday, May 15, during a driving rainstorm, the two forces met at New Market, with Sigel deploying his 5,500 men across the Valley Turnpike. Attacked by Breckinridge’s slightly smaller force, Sigel’s men initially held, but at a critical moment in the fight Breckinridge reluctantly committed the cadets to the attack—”May God forgive me,” he reportedly said—and Sigel’s army quickly began a precipitous retreat. Despite Sigel’s personal efforts, the retreat turned into a rout, and Sigel’s 831 casualties included 256 missing, most of whom were captured.
Lincoln’s singular patience with Sigel finally ran out the following month. Confederate general Jubal A. Early led his Army of the Valley down the Shenandoah all the way to the outskirts of Washington, D.C. Flanked out of Martinsburg and outnumbered, Sigel retreated to Harpers Ferry, taking possession of Maryland Heights across the river from the town. Although he secured the town and his command, the campaign was an embarrassment for the Lincoln administration. In his diary, U.S. attorney general Edward Bates wrote about Early’s men: “How an army so great could traverse the country without being discovered, is a mystery. There must have been the most supine negligence—or worse … I fear that our generals, Wallace”—here referring to Lew Wallace, future author of Ben-Hur (1880)—”Segel [and company] are helpless imbiciles [sic].” Halleck, Sigel’s old nemesis, relieved him of command on July 8, 1864.
Unable to escape blame for the debacle, Sigel failed to receive his requested investigation and held no other significant command during the war. He resigned his commission on May 4, 1865, and returned to civilian life.
After the war Sigel became a newspaper editor, served in several appointed offices, ran unsuccessfully for New York secretary of state against a “Boss Tweed” candidate, and was active in promoting reform issues in that state and elsewhere. Switching to the Democratic Party when Samuel J. Tilden ran as a reform candidate in the presidential election of 1876, Sigel was appointed U.S. pension agent for New York by U.S. president Grover Cleveland. He died on August 21, 1902, and is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City.