Civil War Diaries – Carl Schurz on Fredericksburg


Carl Schurz was born on March 2, 1829, in Cologne, Germany. Schurz studied at the University of Bonn and there he became interested in radical politics. In 1848, Schurz took part in the German Revolution. Following this, Schurz had to flee the nation and go to Switzerland.

Following this, Schurz went to France and England and finally the United States in 1852, roughly a decade before the outbreak of the American Civil War. Schurz lived in New York with his wife until they bought a farm and moved to Watertown, Wisconsin. Here, Schurz’s wife, Margarethe Schurz, founded the first American kindergarten.

In 1860, at the turn of the decade, Schurz campaigned for Abraham Lincoln across Illinois, Missouri, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Lincoln, upon being elected, then appointed Schurz as the U.S. envoy to Spain.

When the American Civil War began, Schurz joined the Union and recruited Germans to the Union army. He was then asked by Lincoln to negotiate with the governments of Europe on behalf of Lincoln. When Schurz returned to the U.S., he served under John C. Fremont. After this, he was given the rank of brigadier general and was given command of the 3rd Divisions in the Army of Virginia.

Following this command, Schurz commanded the 3rd Division in the Army of the Potomac. Here, he fought in battles such as Bull Run and Fredericksburg. Following Fredericksburg, Schurz was promoted to major general and replaced Franz Sigel. Schurz was then present at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. He was then given command of the 3rd Division in the Army of the Cumberland.

Schurz on Fredericksburg

The following is Schurz account of the Battle of Fredericksburg:

When McClellan at last had crossed the Potomac and Richmond, the President removed him from his command and put General Burnside in his place. The selection of Burnside for so great a responsibility was not a happy one. He was a very patriotic man whose heart was in his work, and his sincerity, frankness, and amiability of manner made everybody like him. But he was not a great general, and he felt, himself, that the task to which he had been assigned was too heavy for his shoulders. The complaint against McClellan having been his slowness to act. Burnside resolved to act at once. The plan of campaign he conceived was to cross the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg, and thence to operate upon Richmond.

The battle began on December 13th, 1862, soon after sunrise, under a gray wintry sky. Standing inactive in reserve, we eagerly listened to the booming of the guns, hoping that we should hear the main attack move forward. At eleven o’clock Burnside ordered the assault from Fredericksburg upon Marye’s Heights, Lee’s fortified position. Our men advanced with enthusiasm. A fearful fire of artillery and musketry greeted them. Now they would stop a moment, then plunger forward again.

Through our glasses we saw them fall by hundreds, and their bodies dot the ground. As they approached Lee’s entrenched position, sheet after sheet of flame shot forth from the heights, tearing fearful gaps in our lines. There was no running back of our men. They would sometimes stop or recoil only a little distance, but then doggedly resume the advance. A column rushing forward with charged bayonets almost seemed to reach the enemy’s ramparts, but then to melt away.

Here and there large numbers of our men, within easy range of the enemy’s musketry, would suddenly drop like tall grass swept down with a scythe. They had thrown themselves upon the ground to let the leaden hail pass over them, and under it to advance, crawling. It was all in vain. The enemy’s line was so well posted and protected by a canal and a sunken road and stone walls and entrenchments skillfully thrown up, and so well defended, that it could not be carried by a front assault.

The early coming of night was most welcome. A longer day would have been only a prolonged butchery. And we, of the reserve, stood there while daylight lasted, seeing it all, burning to go to the aid of our brave comrades, but knowing also that it would be useless. Hot tears of rage and of pitying sympathy ran down many a weather-beaten cheek. No more horrible and torturing spectacle could have been imagined.

General Burnside bore himself like an honorable man. During the battle he had proposed to put himself personally at the head of his old corps, the Ninth, and to lead it in the assault. Reluctantly he desisted, yielding to the earnest protests of his generals. After the defeat he unhesitatingly shouldered the whole responsibility for the disaster. He not only did not accuse the troops of any shortcomings, but in the highest terms he praised their courage and extreme gallantry. He blamed only himself.

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