During the American Civil War, Franz Sigel, one of President Abraham Lincoln's "political generals," achieved the rank of major general in the volunteer army and served as a corps commander with the Army of the Potomac.
Franz Sigel was born in the town of Sinsheim, in the duchy of Baden, Germany on November 18, 1824. He was the third of six children and the first son of Franz Moritz and Maria Anna Paulina (Lichtenauer) Sigel. His father was a barrister and judge who could afford to send his son to prominent schools. As a teen, Sigel attended the Karlsruhe Military Academy and received a commission as a lieutenant in the Baden Army following his graduation in 1843.
At the time Sigel entered the military, he was also coming under the influence of the democratic movement that was sweeping across Europe. The discipline of army life did not blend well with Sigel’s convictions about individual freedom. In 1847, army officials imprisoned him for killing a fellow officer in a duel after witnessing the officer mistreating an underling. With any hope for advancement in the military shattered, Sigel resigned his commission that year to enroll at Heidelberg University to study law.
During 1848, Sigel’s first year at Heidelberg, a revolutionary movement erupted in Germany. Sigel at once joined the insurrectionists, demanding the creation of a unified democratic German state. He quickly accepted an appointment as a military leader in the uprising. When Prussian troops quashed the rebels, Sigel led their retreat into Switzerland in 1848. After a second uprising in 1849 also failed, and Sigel went into exile for good.
Immigration to the United States
Doggedly pursued by Prussian operatives while living in Switzerland and France, Sigel moved to England in 1851. There he met his future wife, Elise Dulon. In 1852, Sigel moved to the United States, where most of his family had immigrated. Arriving in New York City on May 15, 1852, Sigel labored as a tutor, draftsman, and surveyor. Later that year, he and his brother, Albert, opened a successful tobacco shop.
By 1854, Elise Dulon had also immigrated to New York, and the couple wed in January of that year. Their marriage, which lasted forty-eight years, produced five children.
In the fall of 1854, Sigel joined the New York State Militia, accepting a commission as major. The next year, he and his father-in-law established the highly successful German-American Institute, or Feldner School, where Sigel taught mathematics, history, and various languages.
In 1857, Sigel moved to St. Louis, Missouri to accept a teaching position at the Deutsches Institut. By 1860, he had achieved such acclaim as an educator that voters elected him as the director of the St. Louis public schools.
While living in Missouri, Sigel also became active in Republican politics. Because his liberal beliefs meshed well with the party’s anti-slavery platform, Sigel actively campaigned for Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election. When the secession crisis escalated after Lincoln’s election to the U. S. presidency, Sigel took up his pen, writing editorials encouraging German-Americans to side with the Unionists. As the Civil War approached, Sigel accepted a commission as a lieutenant in the local militia and quickly earned a promotion to colonel.
Union Army Officer
When the Civil War erupted, Sigel helped organize the 3rd Missouri Infantry Regiment, a ninety-day unit that served under Brigadier-General Nathaniel Lyon. Consisting of nearly all German-Americans, the unit’s men elected Sigel as their colonel. Sigel’s commission in the Union’s volunteer army was dated May 4, 1861. Attached to Lyons’s Army of the West, Sigel took part in the capture of Camp Jackson, near St. Louis, on May 10, 1861. On August 10, Sigel’s failure to protect his left flank led to the rout of his brigade and contributed to the Union defeat at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek.
Despite Sigel’s shortcomings at Wilson’s Creek, the United States War Department issued General Orders, No.62, on August 20, 1861, announcing his appointment to brigadier general of volunteers, to date from May 17, 1861. Sigel’s promotion undoubtedly had more to do with political considerations than with his battlefield talents. President Lincoln correctly recognized that Sigel’s popularity with German-Americans contributed to their recruitment as Union soldiers. Many of them volunteered for the opportunity to “fight mit Sigel.”
Passed Over for Promotion
On November 9, 1861, the United States War Department issued General Orders, No. 97, appointing Major General Henry Halleck to command the newly created Department of the Missouri. Upon assuming his new position, Halleck set about reorganizing the Federal forces in Missouri. Halleck distrusted German-Americans, and he was skeptical of Sigel’s leadership abilities after the latter’s performance at Wilson’s Creek. Therefore, Halleck passed over Sigel, when he assigned Brigadier General Samuel R. Curtis to command the newly formed Army of Southwest on December 26, 1861.
Success at the Battle of Pea Ridge
Halleck’s slight incensed Sigel prompting him to write to Curtis on December 31, 1861, threatening to resign. Sigel’s complaints eventually became a cause célèbre amongst German-Americans that eventually reached the national press, the halls of Congress, and President Lincoln’s office. After several weeks of backroom negotiations, Halleck resolved the matter by organizing the new army along ethnic lines. He appeased Sigel by giving him command of the German-American 1st and 2nd Divisions.
The next spring, Sigel achieved the greatest success of his military career when he adroitly directed his troops during the Union victory at the Battle of Pea Ridge (March 6-8, 1862).
Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1862
Following Sigel’s success at Pea Ridge, the War Department transferred Sigel east in May 1862 to serve as a division commander in the Shenandoah Department under Major General Nathaniel Banks, another of President Lincoln’s political generals. Sigel arrived in the Shenandoah Valley in time to take part in Banks’s futile attempts to oppose Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s Valley Campaign.
On June 2, 1862, Banks placed Sigel in charge of the garrison at Harpers Ferry. Approximately one week later, the War Department issued General Orders, No. 63, on June 10, 1862, promoting Sigel to major general, to date from March 21, 1862.
1st Corps Commander
On June 26, 1862, President Lincoln issued an executive order creating the Army of Virginia Commanded by Major General John Pope. Lincoln’s order also placed Major General John C. Frémont in command of the Mountain Department and in charge of the 1st Corps of Pope’s new army. Stung by being demoted to a corps commander serving under an officer he outranked, Frémont declined his new assignment. On June 30, Halleck selected Sigel to command Frémont’s corps temporarily. On July 12, 1862, he mad the appointment on a permanent.
Northern Virginia Campaign
Sigel’s Corps formed the right flank of the Army of Virginia when Pope launched his Northern Virginia Campaign against Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, in mid-July 1862. When Pope’s army clashed with Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s forces at the Battle of Cedar Mountain (August 9, 1862), Sigel incurred Pope’s wrath for failing to move his corps in time to support the center of the federal line, which the Rebels overran.
Two weeks later, at the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28–30, 1862), Sigel redeemed himself somewhat by repulsing the assault of General James Longstreet’s forces on August 30. After the battle, Sigel tarnished his reputation by becoming embroiled in the controversy surrounding the performance of Pope and Irvin McDowell during the Union defeat.
Army of the Potomac
On September 12, 1862, less than three months after President Lincoln’s order creating the Army of Virginia, the United States War Department issued General Orders, No. 129, dismantling it. Sigel’s 1st Corps was transferred and became the 11th Corps of the Army of the Potomac.
On November 5, 1862, Lincoln issued an executive order, replacing Major General George B. McClellan with Major General Ambrose E. Burnside as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Little more than one week later, Burnside issued General Orders, No. 184 (Army of the Potomac), on November 14, 1862, reorganizing the army into three “grand divisions.” The order also appointed Sigel as commander of a reserve force consisting of the 11th Corps and “such other troops as may hereafter be assigned to it.”
Grand Division Commander
Sigel and his reserve force saw no action during the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11-15, 1862), but in early January 1863, Burnside elevated Sigel to commander of a “grand reserve division consisting of the Eleventh and Twelfth Corps.” Unfortunately for Sigel, Burnside’s grand divisions structure, as well as his command, was short-lived. After a failed offensive known as the Mud March, President Lincoln drafted General Orders No. 20 (U.S. War Department) on January 25, 1863, announcing that Burnside was being relieved of command of the Army of the Potomac, at his own request, and replaced by Major General Joseph Hooker.
11th Corps Commander
Hooker was no fan of Burnside’s grand divisions. On February 5, 1863, Hooker issued General Orders, No. 6 (Army of the Potomac), discontinuing Burnside’s structure and reorganizing the army into seven infantry corps and one cavalry corps. Hooker named Sigel as commander of the 11th Corps. Unhappy with what he perceived as a demotion to a corps commander, Sigel went on leave and began complaining publicly about the situation.
Replaced as Corps Commander
When General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, who personally disliked Sigel, ignored Sigel’s complaints, Sigel submitted requests to Hooker and the War Department, on February 12, 1863, that he be relieved of his command with the Army of the Potomac. On February 19, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton telegraphed Hooker, informing him to tell Sigel that President Lincoln, “has given General Sigel as good a command as he can, and desires him to do the best he can with it.” Upon failing to gain satisfaction from Hooker, Halleck, Stanton, or Lincoln, Sigel wrote to Halleck, requesting that his resignation from the army be accepted. Those involved called Sigel’s bluff. On March 31, Halleck issued Special Orders, No. 87, appointing Major General O.O. Howard as the new commander of the 11th Corps.
Sigel spent the next few months in military purgatory. The War Department neither accepted his resignation nor gave him a new command. Finally, at the urging of German-American supporters, Sigel rescinded his resignation. In July 1863, Halleck and Stanton ordered Sigel to report to Major General Darius Couch with the Department of the Susquehanna in Pennsylvania. On July 6, 1863, Couch assigned Sigel to the relatively inconsequential, “command of all the militia and volunteer forces at Reading, Pa.”
Department of West Virginia Commander
Sigel spent the next seven months lobbying for a more prestigious command. Once again, his political connections salvaged his career. President Lincoln’s reelection in 1864 was no sure thing. Although the Union victory at Gettysburg in July 1863 had taken some wind from the sails of Peace Democrats, Lincoln was facing challenges from radical element of his own party. Badly in need of any support he could muster, Lincoln acquiesced to the entreaties of Sigel’s German-American supporters. On February 29, 1864, the War Department issued General Orders, No. 80, announcing that Sigel was assigned to command the Department of West Virginia.
Sigel’s two primary tasks with the Department of West Virginia were to advance up the Shenandoah Valley (to the south) to cut off supplies to Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and to prevent any Confederate attempts to reinforce Lee during Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign. Once again, Sigel proved to be unequal to the task.
Routed at Battle of New Market and Loss of Command
On May 15, 1864, a hastily assembled force of approximately 4,000 Rebel soldiers that included cadets from the Virginia Military Institute routed Sigel’s forces at the Battle of New Market, causing Grant to lose patience. On May 19, he wrote to Major General Halleck, “By all means I would say appoint General Hunter, or anyone else, to the command of West Virginia.”
Halleck wasted no time in acting. On the same day, the War Department issued General Orders, No. 200, assigning Major General David Hunter to command the Department of West Virginia. Three days after assuming command, on May 22, 1864, Hunter issued Special Orders, No. 102 (Department of West Virginia), assigning Sigel to command the Reserve Division of the department and “the troops in front of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad not comprised in the organizations of the army in the field.”
Relieved of Command
When Confederate General Jubal Early’s Army of the Valley marched into the Shenandoah Valley later that summer and inflicted heavy damage on Harpers Ferry and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, all of Sigel’s superiors had reached their limit. On July 7, 1864, Grant wrote to Halleck: “All of General Sigel’s operations from the beginning of the war have been so unsuccessful that I think it advisable to relieve him from all duty, at least until present troubles are over.” Halleck quickly complied. On the same day, the War Department issued Special Orders, No. 230, relieving Sigel, “from duty in the District of Harper’s Ferry,” and ordering him to, “report in person at Cumberland, Md., to Major-General Hunter for orders.”
The disgraced general requested a court of inquiry into his demotion, but the army never granted it. Sigel spent the last months of the war performing administrative tasks in Washington. On May 4, 1865, he resigned his commission.
Following his resignation, Sigel moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where he worked in the publishing business. In 1867, he relocated to New York, New York, where he served as a newspaper editor and held several appointed offices. He was an unsuccessful candidate for the office of secretary of state for the State of New York in 1869. In 1886, President Grover Cleveland appointed Sigel as United States pension agent for New York, a position he held until 1889. Sigel remained in the publishing business for the remainder of his life.
Franz Sigel died at his home in the Bronx on August 21, 1902, after an illness of several months. Sigel’s remains are buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City.