Early Life: The Wagners Flee a European Tinderbox A patchwork of sovereign states: The world into which Adolphus was born (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Adolphus Wagner was born in the Grand Duchy of Baden around the year 1842 to parents, Valentine and Mary Wagner. At the time, Germany was comprised of a patchwork of sovereign states, each ruled by a hereditary monarchy. Baden was then a sovereign state in southwestern Germany, made wealthy thanks to its agricultural sector. The valley of the Rhine was a fertile land which allowed for the cultivation of a variety of crops. Two-thirds of the Duchy’s population was Catholic, while the other third was Protestant. The Wagners belonged to the latter group. Despite the religious divide, mixed marriages were common in Baden, and progressive enlightenment thought flourished in the region. The Grand Duchy was known as a progressive enclave in Central Europe before 1848. The Lower Chamber of the Baden Diet was seen as a leading forum for the airing of liberal views such as demands for freedom of press, free-election, community self-government, and so on. Despite Baden’s liberal renown, three-quarters of its population was made up of impoverished peasants who lived on the land, 300,000 of whom worked in semi-feudal subjugation to mediatized lords. The Wagner family’s choice to emigrate to America in 1847 was likely motivated by the agrarian crisis which devastated German states in the second half of the 1840s. Poor harvests in both 1845 and 1846 led to a major shortage in food and an increase in the prices of basic commodities, which hurt not only the farmers, but also wealthy artisans and landlords. Massive inflation in the first half of 1847 compounded the crisis and led to bread riots and hunger revolts in many Prussian and South German states. The crisis greatly damaged the legitimacy of conservative rulers across Germany and led to more forceful demands for liberal reforms. Talk of revolution could be heard in Biergärten and at Kaffeeklatsche across Germany, and many families fled before the powder keg was ignited.
The Wagners emigrated to the United States just before the unrest across Europe culminated in the Revolutions of 1848. Only five years old at the time, Adolphus accompanied his family to Rotterdam, where they boarded the Australia and set sail for New York City in June of 1847. The Wagners undoubtably saw significant promise in the great, democratic political experiment of the United States. The youthful nation appeared to be defined by success stories and men whose destinies were determined not by their lineage, but by their work ethic and individual achievements. The Wagner family reached the United States on June 20, 1847 and settled in Rochester, New York. In January of 1848, a revolution began in Sicily– one which would ultimately spark revolutions across Europe. The Wagners had emigrated just in time, narrowly escaping the violence and hardships of revolution. If the Wagners heard news regarding the events in Europe, they would have certainly felt justified in their decision to leave their homeland and start a new life across the Atlantic. By 1850, the Revolutions of 1848 had all ended in failure. The United States had already had its own, successful revolution seventy-five years prior, and the Wagners could enjoy its benefits, for the foreseeable future, without the sacrifice and suffering of war. For them, and for so many other immigrants and native U.S. residents, America truly represented the “last best hope for democracy” on earth.
Germans were one of the largest ethnic groups in America in the antebellum period. Of course, German speaking immigrants themselves would not have identified as “German,” as no unified German identity existed until the foundation of the German Empire in 1871. This nuance escaped most Americans; Prussians spoke the same language as Bavarians, so they were considered to belong to the same ethnicity group. However, while the German-speaking states of Europe had significant cultural differences and engaged in bitter rivalries with each other, German immigrants in America were drawn together by their common language and developed a relatively cohesive German identity, despite their cultural differences. They formed German communities mainly in the North known as Kleindeutschlands, or “little Germanies,” which permitted them to retain their culture and traditions. In fact, so significant was this self-fabricated “German” identity that in the 1850 U.S. Census, Valentine Wagner listed “Germany” as his and his entire family’s birthplace, even though a unified Germany did not yet exist. This phenomenon was not unique to the German-speaking community; despite regional variations back in Europe, immigrants in America often adopted a broader ethnic identity. A Napolitano may have differed greatly from a Sicilian, but they found much more common ground as simply Italian immigrants in a foreign land. The Wagners likely chose to settle in New York state because of its large German community. Berlin and Vienna were the two largest German-speaking communities in the world at the time; New York city’s kleindeutschland was the third largest. Rochester also hosted a sizable German community. At least two of the city’s newspapers were published in German, the Rochester Volksblatt (Rochester People’s Paper) and the Rochester Beobachter (Rochester Observer). A majority of the families amongst whom the Wagners lived in Rochester Ward 6 were also from Germany, though the community was also populated by a few Irish and Canadian families.
In 1848, even more Germans fled to the United States to escape political persecution in a revolutionary Europe. These immigrants who fled Europe were known collectively as the Forty-Eighters; a large proportion of them were educated revolutionaries, completely disillusioned by the failed European revolutions of 1848 and 1849. Many of the German revolutionaries became leaders of the kleindeutschlands across the North and became advocates for German political participation in American government and further sought to keep their culture alive. The German Forty-Eighters brought the Turnvereine to America– gymnastics clubs which promoted physical education but also served as a cultural heritage organization. They would prove to be vital for the Lincoln administration’s recruitment drive in the beginning of the Civil War. These so-called “Turners” encouraged the political participation of German immigrants. They urged fellow Germans to vote Republican, and when war broke out, they called on their respective communities to volunteer and defend the republic. German-Americans volunteered in droves and made up the largest foreign group in the Union Army. In 1860, there were around 1.3 million native-born Germans in the United States. Between 180,000 to 216,000 of them would serve in the Union Army. Some were naturally motivated by lucrative bounties and solid pay, but many also believed they were fighting for a noble cause, especially the Forty-Eighters. August Willich was one such German who fervently believed in the Union cause. Formerly a Prussian General, Willich became a revolutionary and fought in the Baden-Palatinate uprising in 1849. He was forced to flee to England after the uprising failed in 1850, but stayed politically active, even challenging Karl Marx to a duel; Marx was too conservative in Willich’s eyes. In 1853, he immigrated to America and later became the editor of a German free-labor newspaper in Cincinnati. When war broke out in 1861, August Willich wrote to the Freie Presse von Indiana and urged Germans to volunteer, stating that it would provide them the opportunity to “really prove that they are not foreigners, and that they know how to protect their new republican homeland against the aristocracy of the South.”
Most Germans who volunteered were farmers and laborers, not educated revolutionaries, but the revolutionary rhetoric of the Forty-Eighters still appealed to many. The ideology of the Forty-Eighters was inexorably tied to German American conceptions of manhood. The mid-nineteenth century was a time of revolution and migration. Forty-Eighters passionately believed that they neared a Wendepunkt in history, a turning-point of colossal proportions which required militant and decisive men to see it through. As the Turnverein motto declared, German men needed “a sound mind in a sound body,” as they stood on the cusp of history. The tense political climate Germans found in antebellum America was inexorably tied to their experiences back in Europe. The Civil War may have started for distinctly American reasons, but for many German Republicans, the war was akin to the European revolutions, representing a struggle between liberalism and illiberalism. Their manhood, then, would be defined by their willingness to fight for transcendent ideals. Like Adolphus, many Germans were only children when they immigrated to America with their families during a time of immense change in their homeland. They had left die Heimat and fled to America, motivated by the promise of economic opportunity and social mobility in a country which represented a radical break from the politics of the Old World. Yet the New World itself held vestiges of European illiberalism in the form of the aristocracy of the South, their power far too reminiscent of the mediated lords of Central Europe. For many German Americans, the Southern aristocracy was antithetical to the values of the United States. If the South were to win, it would mean death to the republican ideal not only in America, but in Europe as well. The Civil War was not just a national affair, but in fact had international implications. A German American editor of the Westliche Post expressed this sentiment in an article from 1861 titled “Der Volksturm,” literally meaning “people’s storm,” a reference to the Wars of Liberation against Napoleon:
“… for seventy years this republic has been the holy spark of hope in the hearts of patriots in Europe… America and its people are the vanguard of the great mission of the nineteenth century. On its flags are written the magic formula of the future, which is ‘Liberty and Fraternity for all Free Peoples.’ The whole European World is on the brink of casting off its old chains through an elemental upheaval.”
In the 1860 census, Valentine Wagner gave “Baden” as his and his family’s birthplace rather than “Germany.” Unlike the 1850 census, census takers for the 1860 census were instructed to record the specific place where foreign immigrants were born. A large proportion of the Wagners’ neighbors were also Baden natives; it would not be a stretch to suggest that they still had strong ties to their homeland, having integrated into a community full of Baden natives who still had relatives in the Grand Duchy. Perhaps they were proud to be from a German state which was renowned for its liberal Diet before the Baden Revolution. After the revolution had failed, liberal demands were quashed and eighty thousand Badeners had emigrated, many of whom settled in the United States. The revolution had failed to achieve its goals of popular suffrage, freedom of expression and employment for all; but many Badeners did not give up the cause of liberalism. For the Forty-Eighters, the Civil War was a battle between conservatism and liberalism. The American Revolution had already achieved many of the rights sought by European revolutionaries in the late 1840s, but there was still more to be desired. Slavery was the antithesis of free labor and represented a threat to future liberal reforms.
The Formation of the 39th New York, aka the Garibaldi Guard Photo of Giuseppe Garibaldi circa 1861. The revolutionary inspired thousands across the world in his fight for liberalism (Courtesy of LOC).
When the war began in 1861, European immigrants volunteered in droves. Undoubtebly, the pay was one of the greatest motivations for volunteers, but many simultaneously believed in fighting for the cause of free labor. Adolphus Wagner enlisted in the 39th New York Infantry Regiment in New York City on May 17, 1861. He could have enlisted in any one of the regiments which were actively being raised in and around Rochester, but he chose to travel to New York City instead. It is likely that Adolphus was drawn to the allure of the 39th, a.k.a. the “Garibaldi Guard.” The regiment took its name from the Italian revolutionary, Giuseppe Garibaldi. The Lincoln administration had attempted to recruit Garibaldi as a general, but Garibaldi was turned down when he demanded to be commander-in-chief of the Union Army and requested the immediate abolition of slavery. Instead, he gave his name to one of the most diverse regiments in the Civil War. For Adolphus, the regiment’s diversity may have reflected the international implications of the struggle, symbolizing the cooperation between men of all nations in their fight against illiberalism.
The 39th New York was a regiment made up entirely of immigrants. Its 1,086 men were divided into ten companies based on their ethnicity: Three German, three Hungarian, one Swiss, one French, one Spanish and Portuguese, and one Italian. Unlike the 140th New York, the Garibaldi Guard allowed Adolphus to serve alongside fellow Germans. Adolphus never attended school in the United States and likely never needed to master the English language in Rochester, a city in which the large German community had its own newspapers and largely conversed in German. In the Garibaldi Guard, the language barrier would not completely isolate Adolphus. Orders were given in six different languages, a practice which would lead to difficulties for the regiment, but provided the immigrants with a deeper sense of belonging. Many of the immigrant volunteers certainly sought the lucrative paycheck that came with service to the Union, but they were also drawn in by government promises of homestead land and full citizenship to immigrants who served. Furthermore, some hoped that they could prove their loyalty to the Union and possibly stem the tide of nativist sentiment held by so many native-born Americans. Unfortunately for the soldiers of the Garibaldi Guard, their service would have the opposite effect. The 39th New York would be one of the most controversial regiments in the Civil War. While a plethora of regiments experienced mutinies, less-than-respectable behavior, and sometimes even engaged in various levels of war crimes, the socio-ethnic composition of the Garibaldi Guard placed the regiment under the continuous scrutiny of the public eye which readily tallied up its various shortcomings and failures for widespread condemnation. The regiment was plagued by ethnic animosity, serial insubordination, and low morale, all compounded by its enigmatic commander, Frederick D’Utassy, who, to the detriment of Adolphus and his German comrades, also despised Germans.
The Lincoln administration was initially wary of recruiting regiments of foreign nationals for the Union Army, fearful that it would be interpreted by international powers as a sign of domestic weakness. In 1861, Britain and France still leaned towards recognition of the Confederacy over the Union, largely due to economic interests in the South’s agricultural exports. Furthermore, the recruitment of foreign nationals was bound to enrage the nativist faction of the Republican party. Even so, the Lincoln administration relented, believing that the benefits of foreign recruitment outweighed the risks. The 39th New York began organizing in April of 1861 in New York City. On May 23, six days after Adolphus had signed on, the regiment presented its colors to the city in a massive ceremony on Lafayette Place. The regiment had three battle standards: An American flag with the inscription “Garibaldi Guard,” a Hungarian standard with the words “Vivecere aut morire” and its English translation on the back, “Conquer or Die,” and finally, an Italian flag with “Dio e Popolo” (meaning “God and the People”) at its center. The Italian flag had special significance, having been carried by Garibaldi himself during the Italian unification wars of 1848 and 1849. Several days after the ceremony, Frederick D’Utassy was appointed colonel of the regiment and gave an eloquent speech to his men:
“[T]his is your native flag to which added to the emblem of the Union, and the almost sacred name of Garibaldi––let its past, present and future glory be your guiding star. Men, who have so manfully fought in the glorious cause of liberty in their own Fatherlands and who have now so nobly and generously volunteered their services to their adopted Country will not fail to gain new honors and glory.”
Adolphus and his new comrades may well have felt inspired by D’Utassy’s passionate words. Some of the men were undoubtedly Forty-Eighters who attached their revolutionary ideologies to the Union cause. The Garibaldi War Song, dedicated to D’Utassy and the soldiers of the 39th, made clear the international implications of the conflict, the lyrics making a direct connection between Europe and the Civil War:
Your native land shall glow with pride
From Hungary’s wide plains
To Italy’s blood-crimsoned fields
Your deeds shall cleanse their stains;
And every man who falls shall leave
Above the grassy sod
The name of one who fought and died
For freedom and his God.
The song would have appealed greatly to German Republicans, validating their perceived roll in the great international struggle against illiberalism. Only through the toil of principled men could the remnants of despotism be eliminated for all of mankind. Still, many of the men may have been unmoved by such transcendent ideals. Cash bounties, thirteen dollars monthly pay, and the promise of homestead land and citizenship were the only meaningful motivators for some impoverished immigrants.
The Garibaldi Guard left New York for Washington, D.C. on May 28, 1861. When they reached D.C., the regiment was reviewed by Lincoln, Secretary of State William Seward, and Lieutentant Gen. Winfield Scott as they marched past the White House in their new chasseur uniforms. A journalist for the New York Times described their flashy outfits in May 1861: “Their uniform is a suit of blue-black, the pants having a narrow red stripe, and the facing of the frockcoat being of red. Their hats are black, round, topped, wide, stiff brims, with a black feather and eagle. They have shoes with gaiters protecting the ankle and calf.” Onlookers had high expectations for the regiment, impressed by its officer corps and commander, D’Utassy. “Many of these officers have fought in Europe, Asia, South and North America; and some of them are decorated for meritorious services in the Italian and Crimean wars.” Another journalist for the Chicago Tribune similarly praised the officer corps: “Colonel D’Utassy has distinguished himself in the Hungarian, Turkish, French and Austrian armies; Lieut. Colonel Repetti was an officer under Garibaldi in 1848… Thus, it will be seen that no further comment upon the valor or efficiency of these officers is needed.” After several days in Washington, the Garibaldi Guard moved into bivouac at Camp Grinnell in Abington Farm, Virginia, positioned to defend the capital from any Confederate attack. Upon finally settling down into military camp life, the romantic façade of the regiment quickly collapsed. Ethnic animosities and language barriers were bound to pose significant problems for the regiment, but under proper leadership, these issues could have been managed. Unfortunately for the Garibaldi Guard, D’Utassy was not the experienced military man he had claimed to be.
D’Utassy was from Hungary, but he was not part of a distinguished military family. During his later court-martial in 1863, the New York Tribune published an exposé, claiming that D’Utassy was an imposter:
“The person who gives us this information was in one of the regiments, and was personally acquainted with Strasser at that time… in the spring of 1861, when the Garibaldi Guard was being formed in New York, [he] recognized in the elegant and influential D’Utassy, Strasser, the Jewish clothes-dealer of Pesth.”
D’Utassy was, in fact, born into a Jewish family as David Strasser, the article claimed. According to the exposé, Strasser was an ambitious social climber who had created a whole new identity when he arrived in America. He ingratiated himself with notable officials and wealthy citizens, such as the former congressman Moses Hicks Grinell, who was a member of the Union Defense Committee; it was through Grinell that D’Utassy came to lead the Garibaldi Guard. The exposé must be taken with a grain of salt, for few records exist that illuminate D’Utassy’s life before coming to America. Furthermore, accusations of hidden Jewish ancestry were frequently included in polemical newspaper articles and were often motivated by strong feelings of antisemitism that pervaded both America and Europe at the time.
All of that said, this exposé does seem to have been accurate, for the most part. D’Utassy never denied the charges. In 1892, the wife of D’Utassy’s brother applied for a pension, for which she needed official documentation from Austria-Hungary to prove her status as a widow. The documentation shows that they were married in a Synagogue in Warsaw in 1852. In the face of pervasive antisemitism, D’Utassy’s choice to hide his true identity was an understandable one. Nevertheless, the social climber talked his way into a position that he knew he was not qualified for, determined to wring all the benefits he could out of it. D’Utassy’s actions as the colonel of the Garibaldi Guard would cost lives and stain the legacy of immigrant soldiers in the Civil War.
At Camp Grinnell, D’Utassy’s true character became painfully obvious to the officers and enlisted men under his command. The colonel refused to drill or give military instruction to his men, a task he left to his junior officers. While his men trained, D’Utassy enjoyed his female entourage in his headquarters. The regimental chaplain, Anthony Zyla, had few pleasant words to say about D’Utassy’s engagement with “a notorious whore of Irish descent, [and] a regimental nurse,” claiming that D’Utassy “harbored at Manson’s Hill whores in Headquarters, [and] whored in Hunter’s Chapel in the hearing of his servants.” While D’Utassy remained occupied, command was left to the officers of the polyglot regiment, and major disciplinary issues soon arose. In early June, several men of the Garibaldi Guard defected to the Confederates, enticed by rebels in Maryland who had offered them cash to desert. Another group of men refused to follow orders when instructed to handle gunpowder at a Union arsenal. Animosity between the various nationalities was left unchecked, and each company refused to be led by officers who did not represent their own ethnicity. When a native-born American, Jose de Barcellos Boom was appointed captain of the Spanish company, the men mutinied and elected their own captain instead. On June 10, 1861, founding officer Major Luigi Tinelli resigned from the regiment, claiming that he had business to attend to back in Europe. In reality, Tinelli had the foresight to distance himself from the regiment, joining the 19th New York Volunteers soon after his resignation.
D’Utassy’s lack of leadership alone was enough to plunge the regiment into disorder, but ever the swindler, he compounded the problems with his clandestine dealings. Recruitment officers for the Garibaldi Guard had promised the men modern weapons and equipment. Attempts were made to follow through with these promises, as the regiment received 100 new Nealls breech-loading rifles from the Union Defense Committee before embarking on their march to D.C. in late May. Upon their arrival in the capital, however, the men were ordered to relinquish their rifles, and were later given antiquated muskets. D’Utassy had claimed that they had to return the rifles to the committee, but in reality, he had “kept and disposed” of the weapons. Based on D’Utassy’s later actions, it is likely that the imposter colonel sold the weapons for personal profit. Upon being issued inferior equipment, the French and the Spanish companies, allegedly instigated by the Germans, refused the weapons, and fighting broke out between the ethnic groups. Soldiers had not yet been paid and officers still waited on their commissions, further exacerbating the animosity and disorder.
Maintaining good order and discipline, in addition to high morale within the fledgling units of recruits who signed up to fight in the war was difficult enough with experienced leadership. However, under the leadership of D’Utassy, insubordination was endemic. A group of regimental officers and company commanders tried a democratic approach in addressing their grievances with the regiment, banding together to sign a petition. Their petition demanded that they receive the better rifles they had been promised, as well as their commissions and pay which had yet to materialize. The inevitable advance on the Confederates weighed heavily on the men, for many feared that they would die before receiving their pay. It seems that D’Utassy never responded to the petitioners, for only a few days later, he received a scathing letter of resignation from the leader of the French company, Captain Tassilier. Claiming to speak for the other officers, Tassilier called D’Utassy a menace to the regiment, accusing him of embezzlement and physical and verbal abuse. Most damning of all, Tassilier claimed that D’Utassy held anti-democratic ideas and was a Jewish imposter—claims which threatened to taint both the professional reputation and personal honor of D’Utassy irreparably. Around the same time, another French officer resigned because of his intense rivalry with some of the German officers. In only the first few months of the Garibaldi Guard’s existence, the regiment appeared to be falling apart at the seams. The sorry state of the Garibaldi Guard did not go unnoticed by the high command. D’Utassy received orders in July to restore order to his regiment or see it dissolved. D’Utassy swiftly reorganized the companies, an action which implied that the ethnically diverse soldiers were the main cause of the disorder. The reorganization saved the Garibaldi Guard from dissolution but did nothing to improve the morale and discipline of the regiment. Shortly after the reorganization, the regiment experienced a major mutiny that would permanently damage the reputation of the Garibaldi Guard.
In early July, rumors spread amongst the men that the Union Army would soon meet the Confederates in battle near Manassas Junction. The Garibaldi Guard had not yet seen their first battle, yet morale was already greatly diminished. The disgruntled soldiers had reluctantly accepted their antiquated weaponry, but now, on the eve of battle, their suppressed animosity once again bubbled to the surface. Captain Franz Takats, the leader of one of the Hungarian companies, led his men in a mutiny. Leaving Camp Grinnell, the Hungarians marched towards Washington, determined to make their grievances known to high command. As they neared the Potomac at Long Bridge, the Hungarians were met by Lieutenant James Rice and a detachment of soldiers. They were given two options: turn back, or be fired upon. During the tense exchange, Takats threatened Rice, going so far as to aim his rifle at Rice’s chest. In the end, Takats relented, unwilling to spill the blood of fellow soldiers. He was subsequently forced to resign. Despite his mutinous action, Takats’s resignation would negatively impact the entire Garibaldi Guard. Takats had been a major critic of the corrupt D’Utassy. With Takats gone, his command was given to D’Utassy’s trusted supporter, Mahlons Sanos. A silver lining came, however, with the government’s recognition of the men’s grievances that had so nearly resulted in unnecessary bloodshed. The regiment subsequently received better rifles and the men also received their late pay. After the incident, D’Utassy would still continue in his mismanagement of the regiment, but increasingly found himself under the close scrutiny of high command.
Adolphus could not have been pleased with his introduction to military life. The disorder and disgruntlement of the Garibaldi Guard was a far cry from the romanticized notion of principled citizen-soldiers selflessly fighting for the republic. Even so, Adolphus did not take part in the desertions and mutinies of June and July. Any feelings of disillusionment may actually have been paradoxically tempered by the chaos swirling around the camp. In fact, Adolphus’s motivations to fight were likely strengthened by a desire to out-perform his grousing fellow units and redeem the reputation of the Garibaldi Guard through displays of what he and his company regarded as uniquely German martial fortitude. As observed in other companies, German-American soldiers rarely interacted with their English-speaking comrades, preferring instead to mix with fellow German-speakers. In the multi-ethnic Garibaldi Guard, such self-imposed segregation was ensured by the major language barrier, which consequently fueled ethnic animosities, but simultaneously strengthened intra-group dynamics. Within their companies, German Americans continued the ethnocultural practices of their communities, engaging in Prussian military drills and gymnastics, singing songs from their homeland, and eating and drinking Sauerkraut, Bratwurst and Bier. On the eve of German unification, German cultural pride, which had been slowly nurtured through the first half of the nineteenth century by nationalist figures such as the Grimm brothers, reached a fever pitch. Mixed with the revolutionary ideologies of the Forty-eighters, the pride of many German Americans led to feelings of cultural superiority. They saw in themselves a martial spirit that was unmatched by any other ethnic group. Turner leader, Wilhelm Rapp openly stated that Germans were more prepared to fight and suffer for republican ideals. Within the echo chamber of his company, Adolphus would have been constantly exposed to the lofty ideals of German Republicans and the expressions of chauvinism which emerged from said ideals. One can imagine how the prideful German Americans reacted to the regimental disorder, grumbling to their comrades that things would be different had a German been given command—and striving to ensure that it would be the Germans who would ultimately redeem the fallen unit.
On July 16, 1861, the Garibaldi Guard marched with Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell’s army towards Centreville, Virginia. The main engagement began on July 21 at Manassas Junction, during which the 39th, assigned to Colonel Ludwig Blenker’s First Brigade, was held in reserve at Centreville. Adolphus and his comrades may have avoided battle altogether if the Union retreat had not been so disastrous. The Union forces had failed to break through Stonewall Jackson’s line, and as Confederate reinforcements arrived, they began to withdraw at 4:00 pm. The withdrawal quickly turned into a total rout as the untested and poorly trained Union soldiers panicked, some even throwing down their arms as they fled. The Garibaldi Guard, along with the other regiments of the First Brigade, was ordered to hold back the advancing Confederates. Perhaps wisely, Blenker kept the already infamous 39th in the rear of his brigade. The Union rear-guard performed well overall, successfully protecting the bulk of the retreating Union forces. At the end of the day, two soldiers of the Garibaldi Guard lay dead, while five more were wounded. An astonishing fifty-four men were listed as missing in action; most had fled during the battle and returned to camp later. Blenker’s choice to keep the 39th away from the front lines proved to be an astute decision. The scores of men who fled the battle speak to just how ill-prepared the Garibaldi Guard was for combat. The already low morale of the regiment plummeted following their defeat at Bull Run. Adolphus, however, had had the chance to prove himself at Bull Run: On July 20, 1861, the 21-year-old was promoted to sergeant.
At least six more officers attempted to resign after Bull Run. Officer turn-over rates in immigrant regiments were often higher than that of native-born regiments. Nativists saw such turnover as proof of immigrants’ lack of loyalty to the Union. Naturally, the reasons for this occurrence are more complex. For many immigrants, joining the military was seen as the most viable way to pursue social mobility, but it was by no means a guaranteed outcome. Competent immigrants could quickly rise through the ranks, but their ambition could be squashed by a single failure. In the political fallout following an unsuccessful engagement, immigrants were often made into scapegoats. Their foreign status was frequently leveled against them, which could put an immediate end to their military careers. The fact that so many officers in the Garibaldi Guard resigned no more than two to three months after the regiment’s formation reveals that many immigrants recognized the volatility of their careers. After the fiasco at Bull Run, officers who had previously considered resignation now followed through, sending additional ripples of unrest and distrust through the ranks and fomenting additional instability within the Guard as a whole. For the enlisted soldiers like Adolphus, resignation was not an option. Whether they liked it or not, they were tied to the misfortunes of the 39th. Adolphus and many of his fellow German Americans would have likely been appalled by the defeat at Bull Run. Not only had the enemy prevailed; hundreds of men had disorderly fled the field of battle, disgracing the Union forces. To flee the battlefield and emasculate oneself was considered an affront to German-American manhood. Furthermore, they had been defeated in their first engagement by an enemy that Republican German Americans held no respect for. Confederate soldiers were seen as the ignorant and uneducated minions of the feudal system. As officer after officer produced his own letter of resignation, many of the men undoubtedly felt disillusioned by their perceived abandonment by the higher-ups.
The high turnover rate of the officer corps had a detrimental effect on the rank-and-file of the 39th. By the end of the summer of 1861, few of the original officers and commanders remained in the regiment. By the end of the year, some two-hundred enlisted men had deserted or been discharged. D’Utassy’s mismanagement undoubtedly contributed to these alarming numbers. Not all of the officers had resigned by personal choice. Many of the officers were far more experienced than D’Utassy, and these men were often the colonel’s most vocal opponents. One such officer was Captain Osnaghi, who had signed the unsuccessful officer’s petition back in July. He had attempted to resign then, but was denied. Osnaghi tried again in August, and D’Utassy finally relented, but the colonel’s petty and vindictive nature compelled him to sabotage Osnaghi’s military career in a letter to Gen. McDowell: “[Osnaghi] was compromise[d] in the mutiny of Capt. Takats of my command, 7 July 1861, to my knowledge, and to such an extent as to make it prejudicial to good discipline for him to remain in my regiment, but not sufficient for a court-martial.” Refusing to recognize his own incompetence and fearful that his illegal activities would be uncovered, D’Utassy employed this strategy of career sabotage against all of his detractors, either forcing them to resign or commencing court martial proceedings against them. Any officers who remained after D’Utassy’s purges had to either fall in line or risk career suicide by criticizing the scheming colonel. Within this toxic environment, the most competent and well-liked officers did not last long. In consequence, enlisted men like Adolphus frequently found themselves led by unpopular officers who were uncritical either out of fear or because they simply were just as ambitious and unqualified as D’Utassy. In volunteering for a war driven by such high ideological notions, Adolphus likely expected a greater sense of cooperation in the ranks of the military. In the Garibaldi Guard, he found the exact opposite. Reminiscent of the competitive marketplace of modernizing capitalism, the men of the 39th fiercely competed for higher positions during wartime, emulating the cutthroat example set by their superiors.
After Bull Run, the Garibaldi Guard remained attached to Blenker, who now commanded what became known as the German division. Their new camp was established near Roach Mills, Virginia, and they would remain there until November. Adolphus must have felt relieved to become a part of the German division. Blenker was a proud Forty-Eighter who had led troops in the South-German Palatine uprising of 1849. Like many other German Forty-Eighters, Blenker heeded Lincoln’s call to defend the Union and raised the German 8th New York. Blenker was a celebrity across New York’s kleindeutschlands, representing the revolutionary martial German spirit which defined manhood for many German-Americans.
Blenker made no efforts to suppress his or his men’s culture, giving the division a noticeably German color. One observer commented how the division’s camp was organized in “German fashion… [as] the tents stood in rows, each regiment separated from the others. The lanes between them were ornamented…with recently planted fir and cedar trees.” Unlike D’Utassy, Blenker seemed to genuinely care for his men, procuring funds to purchase ethnically German food and drinks. During their time with Blenker, Adolphus and his comrades ate black rye bread, washing down its distinctly earthy taste with the lagers and Rhine wine that could be purchased from the division’s sutlers. Blenker’s division was a mobile kleindeutschland that undoubtedly felt like a touch of home for its German American members. Such cultural familiarity and comfort amidst the enormous discomforts and unfamiliar scenes of war provided men with a reminder of the high stakes of the war, and renewed the men’s motivation to keep marching and fighting. Non-Germans, however, were less than thrilled to be surrounded by German customs and language. Many Americans associated all Germans with the radical Forty-Eighters, viewing them as foreign troublemakers. Others simply despised them for their foreignness. Edward C. Hubbard of the 13th Illinois made no attempt to conceal his hatred of Germans in a letter home: “America can curse the day that a Dutchman joined her army… I used to think that any white man was better than a negro, but I had rather sleep or eat with a negro than a Dutchman.” Germans could enjoy the company of their countrymen, but in the position of the ethnic majority, their dominance served to alienate other ethnic groups and consequently increased ethnic animosity among the soldiers.
In November of 1861, the division’s winter camp was set up near Hunter’s Chapel, in Northern Virginia. They would remain in camp until March of 1862. It was during this time that D’Utassy was arrested and received his first court martial. The scheming colonel had allegedly reached out to New York newspapers in order to publish articles critical of the division commander, Blenker. While under arrest, the silver-tongued D’Utassy was not permitted any visitation or mail and began to suffer a nervous breakdown, likely fearful that his illegal actions would be uncovered during his confinement. In the end, Blenker dropped the charges. Perhaps he was unwilling to deal with the time-consuming trial, or he simply could not find adequate evidence. Adolphus was surely annoyed to see the slippery D’Utassy walk free. While he may have been unaware of D’Utassy’s illegal dealings, the colonel’s disrespect for Germans was known to all.
By March 8, 1862, Blenker’s division broke winter camp and began marching south with McClellan’s army, reaching Manassas Junction on March 23. On the previous day, Union forces had won a tactical victory at Kernstown, Virginia, but the Confederate forces under Jackson had escaped, ensuring the continuation of the Shenandoah campaign. At Manassas Junction, the Garibaldi Guard, along with the rest of Blenker’s division, broke off from the main army and began marching west to rendezvous at Petersburg with John C. Fremont, commander of the Mountain Department. They arrived at Warrenton Junction in early April, where Blenker’s division fell under the jurisdiction of General Edwin Sumner. From Warrenton, they continued their march west. Conditions were harsh for the men. It was cold, and the men reportedly were receiving ½ rations. Animosity once again bubbled to the surface. Local farmers had gone to Sumner and claimed that their farms had been raided by troops. One German soldier recorded his anger in his diary:
“One day a farmer comes and pretends that $1000 worth of money and belongings were stolen from him. And what does our grey-headed traitor do but believe him. He ordered our entire army corps to muster, personally leading this spy around each regiment to show him our ranks and the numbers of our troops.”
While many farmers could have been untruthful, many soldiers from the German division did engage in looting on the march. The march to Petersburg took over a month to complete. During this time, the weather continued to be unusually harsh for the Spring, and with the men stranded in the middle of the Blue Ridge mountains, no food provisions could reach the already ill-equipped division. Hungry and cold, many of the men resorted to plundering farms. Such behavior proved to tarnish the reputation of the German division and provided nativists with more ammunition. Northerners and Southerners alike read about the looting on the front pages of newspapers around the country. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that several men of Blenker’s division “…are charged with having wantonly burned and destroyed buildings, houses and barns, which even rebel atrocities had spared.” Southern newspapers were less restrained. One columnist in the Knoxville Register called for the execution of captured German soldiers:
“The national odor of Dutchmen, as distinctive of the race as that which, constantly ascending to Heaven, has distended the nostrils of the negro, is as unmistakable as that peculiar to a pole-cat, an old pipe, or a lager beer saloon. Crimes, thefts, and insults to the women of the South, invariably mark the course of these stinking bodies of animated sour-krout[sic]… we entertain a greater degree of respect for an Ethiopian in the ranks of the Northern armies than for an odoriferous Dutchman, who can have no possible interest in this revolution. Why not hang every Dutchman captured… The live masses of beer, krout, tobacco and rotten cheese, which, on two legs and four, on foot and mounted, go prowling through the South should be used to manure the sandy plains and barren hillsides of Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia.”
Whether Adolphus engaged in the looting or not, the media response certainly enraged him. Looting was an unfortunate reality of wartime perpetuated by a plethora of regiments across both the North and South, yet it made front-page news when immigrants could be blamed for it. This was not the last time that Germans were unfairly criticized by the media during the Civil War. Their portrayal in the news greatly damaged German morale, for it was a direct affront to their imagined martial prowess, and further stressed the alterity of German Americans. Any German Americans who had volunteered to hasten their assimilation and to prove their loyalty suddenly found their ideological basis for doing so challenged.
On May 10, 1863, Blenker’s division finally met up with Fremont in Petersburg. The soldiers were in a terrible condition. Many had lost articles of clothing on the march. Around 400 men were sick or too emaciated to keep up with the division, and there was only a single hospital tent that could accommodate them. Within two days, they were on the march yet again, arriving in Franklin on May 14 to reinforce General Schenck. During this time, the exhausted men were surviving on rations of crackers. They did not remain in Franklin for long. To their dismay, Jackson had suddenly pushed north, driving a Union force back to Winchester. Blenker’s division rushed back to Petersburg in a grueling march, but upon their arrival on May 25, the men were finally provided with proper meals. The march continued on the 27th, but when they reached Fabius, on Branch Mountain, the following day, it became clear to Fremont that he had to halt. Of the 10, 117 men in the Blenker division, fewer than 6,000 were still present or fit for duty.
Fremont decided to give his men a short rest, resuming the march two days later. The weather continued to work against them. Violent thunderstorms roared overhead, and torrential rainfall drenched the men and muddied the ground, slowing their march to a painful slog. Each step Adolphus took required significant effort, his feet sinking deep into the mud as he trudged along with his comrades. Perhaps Adolphus meditated on the great mission of German Republicans; he toiled now to ensure that liberalism flourished for future generations. However, the more likely and immediate motivator was his growling stomach, reminding Adolphus of the subsistence-level lifestyle he had lived the past month, pushing him forward towards his next meal as his legs threatened to give out beneath him. In a war defined by the high ideological rhetoric of its participants, it is easy to forget that it was often the small things that could keep the enlisted men going during times of hardship—or, conversely, break their wavering spirits for good.
Fremont’s army reached Cedar Creek on the 31st, still beset by demoralizing torrential rainfall. The general sent out his advance brigade and quickly learned that Jackson’s force was closer than he had initially thought. The advance brigade engaged in several skirmishes with Confederate troops as Jackson slowly fell back to a more defensible position. Fremont refused to give Jackson any breathing room, pursuing his army for the next few days. The Confederates frequently skirmished with the advancing Union troops, turning to fight, then quickly retreating once more. Jackson’s men left a trail of abandoned weapons and dead soldiers in their wake. Fremont’s army seized 500 rebel prisoners. On June 2, Stahel’s brigade (of which the Garibaldi Guard was a part) occupied Woodstock. After months of demoralizing experiences in the Mountain Department chasing after the seemingly elusive Jackson, Adolphus and his comrades rejoiced at seeing the enemy seemingly retreat in disorder before them. Their excitement may have been tempered by the realization that they would soon take part in their first major battle. At Bull Run, the 39th had hardly had the chance to participate, yet still had performed disastrously. Now, the men were under significant pressure to redeem themselves and to save the honor of their regiment.
On June 7, 1862, Fremont led his army to Cross Keys, where Jackson had halted his force and turned to face the Union army. The Garibaldi Guard was detached from Stahel’s brigade and placed in Colonel Gustave Paul Cluseret’s advance guard. Colonel Cluseret was a respected French revolutionary who had commanded the French Legion under Garibaldi in 1860. While Adolphus may have disliked being placed under the command of a Frenchman, Cluseret unquestionably commanded more respect than D’Utassy. At Cross Keys, the Garibaldians would not be placed in the back of the formation. This time, Adolphus would be in the vanguard. The battle began on the morning of June 9th. Officers shouted out orders to fix bayonets. Adolphus would have heard the command repeated down the line in six different languages as he fixed the blade to his rifle. Adolphus and his Garibaldian comrades were the first to reach the Confederate lines. The fighting was fierce. Artillery shrieked overhead as muskets filled the air with smoke, and within seconds, the sounds of men screaming in agony pervaded the entire battlefield. The Confederates were slowly pushed back until they reached an easily defensible ridge, where the Union army began to lose its momentum. After three hours of intense fighting, the Union forces had been pushed back to the woods. The 39th now held Fremont’s center, where they were vastly outnumbered by the rebels. The Confederates were attempting to encircle Fremont’s center, and attacked both of his flanks simultaneously. Rebel yells pierced the air, certainly intimidating Adolphus but also validating his prejudiced conception of Southerners as wild and ignorant relics of the past. By nightfall, Fremont was forced to withdraw. Cross Keys had been a clear victory for the Confederates, who had inflicted 684 Union casualties while suffering only 287 themselves.
Cross Keys had represented a chance for the Garibaldians to prove themselves; but once again, the regiment was showered with disgrace. No fewer than three of its officers were court martialed after the battle. 1st Lieutenant Ornesi was found hiding inside a house during the battle. After Captain Venuti had been wounded, 2nd Lieutenant Frixione failed to take command and instead hid behind the trees. Venuti reportedly yelled out to him: “Save the honor of our company; if you, an officer, behave in such a manner, what may be expected of a common soldier?” His cries fell on deaf ears, and Venuti remained hidden. Worst of all, D’Utassy’s second-in-command, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Repetti, had disappeared before the battle, not showing up until it was over. One witness reported that when he asked where Repetti had been, Repetti muttered that “he would not have been such a fool to have himself killed for such a stupid country.” Repetti was already disliked by most of the soldiers, a fact that would come out during D’Utassy’s later trial, so it is possible that this witness may have fabricated the quote. Whether it was true or not, Repetti had indisputably fired upon a sick Union soldier during their pursuit of Jackson. For these actions, he was charged with “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman,” and was formally discharged on June 19th, 1862. D’Utassy’s purge of the Garibaldi Guard’s officer corps had, in part, caused the regiment’s disastrous performance at their first major engagement.
Following the battle, the regiment limped to Camp Jackson, where they awaited further orders. They had suffered forty-four casualties and had little to show for it. At Camp Jackson, the men found that most of the provisions they were to receive from Petersburg had never arrived. Once again, they were forced to scavenge, and the regiment survived on captured Confederate supplies while at Camp Jackson. Scandal after scandal had caused the morale of the regiment to plummet, which was further compounded by poor leadership and logistical planning. As they licked their wounds at camp Jackson, many of the enlisted men may have mulled over the same sentiment expressed by their disgraced Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Repetti: Were they such fools to die for such a stupid country?
Around the middle of July, 1862, the Garibaldians were detached from general command and sent to assist in the garrisoning of Winchester, Virginia. On June 15, as the regiment marched towards Winchester, they were attacked by a small Confederate detachment and were forced to retreat before continuing the march. After hearing about the retreat, General John Pope angrily wrote to Brigadier General A. Sanders Piatt, the commander of Winchester:
“A regiment of infantry in such a country is more than a match for a dozen regiments of cavalry, and ought never to retreat before them. Neither do I quite understand your calling an affair in which 2 men were wounded a “sharp engagement” I hope you will infuse a much bolder spirit in your men.”
The scandals and humiliations of the 39th New York repeated ad nauseam. After their first major engagement, the Garibaldians were already relegated to garrison duty. They would remain in Winchester until September, building fortifications around the Union supply depot, which was fittingly named Fort Garibaldi. Even with morale at an all-time low, most of the enlisted men remained committed to their duties. During this dark period for the Garibaldians, it is doubtful that romantic notions of republicanism upheld their sense of duty. More likely, it was the desire to keep earning a steady income that kept them going, as well as their conceptions of honorable masculinity, which judged men based on their ability to support their family. Captain Carlos Alvarez De La Mesa’s letter to his wife reflects the monetary concerns shared by many soldiers:
“You began by telling me stories about the money. That’s fine. That’s your obligation since I have spent many bad moments to earn it. But, to this I tell you, if I am not sending you enough money how much do you need? I save more than I need and the majority of the time I am without money for anything. The manner in which I am living right now is truly ridiculous… You said that you don’t have more than $12.75, which is fine. You have spent money for business but you must realize everything will decline until we are not in debt. Until then you leave me here without pants like you know I am.”
Adolphus was young and unmarried, and having spent his time surrounded by fellow Germans, he may have held on to the revolutionary notions of German republicans, as well as the sense of ethnic superiority felt by many of the German soldiers. In the wake of their repeated humiliations, however, the monetary incentive may have increasingly eclipsed his romanticized motivations to fight.
In late August 1862, General Pope’s Union army was defeated at the Second Battle of Bull Run, retreating in panic to Washington, where Pope was relieved of his command. As Lee pushed north, the Garibaldians were ordered to leave Winchester and defend the critical Union garrison at Harper’s Ferry, in now West Virginia. Colonel D’Utassy, promoted to brigade commander, led the Garibaldians and several other regiments in the defense of Maryland Heights, which overlooked the small town. The battle began on September 12, 1862. By September 15, the Confederates had positioned artillery all around the Union forces, making their situation hopeless. The commander of the Harper’s Ferry garrison, Dixon Miles, recognized his men’s position and agreed to surrender. Miles was mortally wounded by artillery shortly after, but the surrender proceeded. The Garibaldians, one of the few veteran regiments defending the garrison, had performed well, but once again were met with shameful defeat. Even worse, the Garibaldians knew that they would not have another chance to prove themselves for some time.
The Confederates did not have the capability to intern the nearly 12,000 men who had surrendered to them, and this meant that a “gentleman’s agreement” would have to be concluded between the respective commanders. It was an agreement that neutralized troops without killing or wounding them. The Garibaldians would be confined in a federal camp until they were later exchanged; only then could they rejoin the war. Newspapers ran the headline of “Harper’s Ferry Cowards,” but for once, the Garibaldians were not made the scapegoats for the disaster. By then detached from the notorious German Division, their regiment was one of the few veteran regiments present at Harper’s Ferry, and most of the blame went to the greenhorns. Even so, the headlines would have infuriated Adolphus and his comrades. They lost every single battle that they had fought in, and despite their improved performance at Harper’s Ferry, they experienced their most humiliating defeat yet.
The men were loaded into railway cars and sent westward to Camp Douglas, near Chicago. They would remain there for months as they waited to be exchanged. In the meantime, they would have to endure the terrible conditions at Camp Douglas. The land was improperly drained and swampy. Rats thrived in the barracks, crawling over the men as they slept, causing many a sleepless night for any musophobics. The men entertained themselves with rat hunts and other physical activities, but it was not enough to stymie the anger and boredom of many soldiers. Illinois recruits training at Camp Douglas mocked the paroles as the “Harper’s Ferry Cowards,” causing many fights to break out between the soldiers. Such feuding only accelerated the demoralization of the men, leading to mutinies that were, for once, not instigated by the Garibaldians themselves. Soldiers burned down the barracks of other companies and regiments. Nearly all the men in the 32nd Ohio simply left the camp and forced a train conductor to bring them back east. Attempts were made to enforce daily drill routines, but few of the demoralized men could be compelled to do anything. The Garibaldians were even forced to put down a mutiny in the camp at one point.
The fact that the 39th New York did not take part in any of the mutinies is telling. They too shared the same complaints as the mutinous soldiers–first and foremost, their illusive paychecks that had yet to materialize; but the Garibaldians were committed, more than ever, to proving themselves in the wake of all-too-frequent frequent defeats and uprisings. Many of the soldiers certainly railed at the absurdity of their confinement at the hands of their own government. Others may have been discouraged by their plight, but respected the established etiquette of nineteenth-century warfare. It seems that Adolphus was among the latter. Before they were exchanged in mid-November, Adolphus was promoted to Sergeant Major on November 12, 1862. Surrounded by the disorder and boredom of Camp Douglas, it is unlikely that Adolphus and his German-American comrades halted their ethnocultural practices. They would have continued practicing their gymnastics and Prussian military drills. While the native regiments burned down barracks and mutinied, the German Americans and their feelings of ethnic superiority and martial prowess would have been further validated. Adolphus’s promotion was one such personal validation.
The Garibaldians were sent to Washington after their exchange, once again under the command of D’Utassy, who resumed his command of the brigade he had led at Harper’s Ferry. They remained in Washington for the winter under the jurisdiction of General Silas Casey, a strict disciplinarian who held the men to a rigid itinerary and drilled them endlessly to improve unit cohesion. Adolphus seems to have thrived in this environment, being promoted to 2nd Lieutenant on December 17, 1862, only a month after his previous promotion. His quick rise through the ranks is indicative of his commitment to the war, a commitment that remained even as the Garibaldians idled away at Camp Douglas.
In the spring of 1863, the men learned that D’Utassy was facing a court martial once more. This time, D’Utassy had reached the end of his luck. He had created countless enemies within the Garibaldi Guard and in both Washington and New York, enemies who seized upon the perfect occasion to bring down D’Utassy once and for all. In early 1863, the federal government sought to streamline the army supply system and crack down on the corruption that had run rampant in the army. U.S. branded horses were frequently appropriated by officers using government funds. D’Utassy had three such horses, which immediately raised suspicions. Furthermore, D’Utassy enjoyed a rather extravagant lifestyle that, in and of itself, would not have made the upper crust of American society blink; but D’Utassy was a foreigner, which marked him for special scrutiny. The three major charges leveled against him were as follows: (1) “Advising and persuading a soldier to desert;” (2) “Unlawfully selling and disposing of Government horses for his own benefit” and (3) “Conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline.” D’Utassy was exonerated on the first charge but found guilty of multiple specifications under the other charges. He was permanently disqualified from holding office in the United States and sentenced to one year of hard labor at Sing Sing State Prison in New York. His sentence was approved by Lincoln on May 27, 1863. The Garibaldians would remain without a colonel until 1864.
Most of the men were likely happy to see D’Utassy leave, most especially the Germans, who had received the brunt of D’Utassy’s scorn, due to his hatred of German culture imparted from his homeland. His dismissal may have also been somewhat melancholic, for with the court martial of D’Utassy, nearly every original officer of the 39th New York was gone. The number of enlisted men had been greatly depleted too; by the time the Garibaldians marched to Gettysburg, they numbered around 400, making up a mere four-company battalion. However, despite their much-reduced numbers, the Garibaldians would finally get the chance to prove just how effective they could be. The men heard news of Lee’s crossing of the Potomac on June 18, 1863. They hastily struck their camp near Sugar Loaf Mountain, Maryland, and began the march north to intercept Lee.
The Garibaldians at Gettysburg The monument to the 39th New York (Courtesy of Courtesy of New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center).
In their much-reduced position, the Garibaldians were attached to the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Division of the 2nd Corps of the Army of the Potomac, led by General Winfield S. Hancock. The men reached Taneytown around the afternoon of July 1, where rumors spread that Union and Confederate forces had met in battle. The rumors were confirmed when Gen. Hancock rode ahead of his men to reach Gettysburg and take temporary command of General Reynolds’s corps. The Union general had fallen on the first day, and with Hancock’s hasty departure, a sense of foreboding spread throughout the ranks. Even the most driven Garibaldian must have allowed an element of defeatism to seep into his mind when it was conveyed that the first day of battle had ended in a Union defeat. For the entire duration of their service up until that point, the Garibaldians had only been on the losing side of the war. But Lee’s invasion of the North was different: If they failed to repel Lee’s invasion here, it could leave Washington dangerously exposed, thus threatening the fortunes and future of northerners everywhere, including that of the men’s families in New York. Such a prospect would have especially terrified Adolphus and his fellow Germans, for their tainted notions of Southerners as a mass of ignorant and uneducated peasants—perceptions that flourished even before the war–could only have been nurtured by the men’s time in the military. One of the most effective propaganda strategies used by states during times of war was the assertion that the “enemy” would rape the wives of the soldiers. If the soldiers could not protect their countrymen’s—and their own–wives, then they could not consider themselves men. For Adolphus and his German comrades, this powerful, gendered motivator was accompanied by German conceptions of martial manhood, which for all of their Prussian drilling and gymnastics, had not yet been proven on the field of battle. Gettysburg, then, more than any other battle, must have weighed heavily on Adolphus’s mind as he and his comrades marched north from Taneytown. The Garibaldians halted three miles from Gettysburg on the night of July 1.
Around 3:00 am on July 2, the Garibaldians took their position on the center-right of Cemetery Ridge. Most of the men would have had a sleepless night in anticipation of the coming battle. Both veterans and greenhorns struggled to suppress the thought that the next day may well bring their own death and the deaths of many of their comrades. As Adolphus fell in line on Cemetery Ridge, adrenaline would have left him in a state of alertness and anxious excitement. The sun rising in the East announced the beginning of the second day of battle, and the Garibaldians would see some of the first action of the day. Across the Emmitsburg Road from the men lay the Bliss Farm, where Confederate sharpshooters had occupied both the house and the barn. The sharpshooters took relentless potshots at the men from the windows, while others lay prone in the tall grass, waiting for their moment to strike, then melt away before they betrayed their position. Adolphus would have seen men suddenly collapse around him as sharpshooters hit their mark. Even a man with nerves of steel would have shuddered each time a bullet whizzed by. While keeping formation in the face of a firestorm of bullets was nerve-racking, facing sharpshooters was unique in its brand of terror. Line fire was more or less indiscriminate, while sharpshooting involved a much more personal and sinister element. To be under fire from sharpshooters meant that at any moment, a sharpshooter could be observing you behind the scope of a terrifyingly accurate rifle. For higher ranking men like Adolphus, sharpshooters presented an extra level of dread, for they actively targeted officers whenever they could. When the Garibaldians were ordered to deploy as skirmishers to the Bliss Farm, few of them would have rejoiced at the assignment.
The Garibaldians skirmished with the Confederate sharpshooters at the Bliss Farm for four hours, themselves becoming unsuspecting and sinister marksmen in their own right. Every moment was exceptionally tense. For each sharpshooter they killed or wounded, another popped up from the grass or peeked out a window to take another shot. As a Second Lieutenant, Adolphus would have needed to consistently expose himself in order to assist his company captain in guiding the men. During those four stressful hours, a Confederate sharpshooter spotted Adolphus and took aim. Adolphus was hit directly in the chest and fell where he stood. As the Garibaldians withdrew around noon, they dragged their wounded comrades back to their lines and loaded them up in ambulances bound for one of the many field hospitals established around Gettysburg. Having fallen near the Bliss Farm, Adolphus was likely taken to the Union hospital at the George Spangler Farm. As the ambulance wagon rolled to a stop near the entrance of the Spangler barn, Adolphus would have seen a line of wounded men on stretchers before the barn doors, awaiting their turn for pre-op. A little further off, near the Spangler house, he would have seen more wounded men writhing on the ground; but these men only awaited death. Their wounds judged too grievous for operation, they were placed out of the way and left with scores of mortally wounded men, each pondering his own inevitable death. The cries and death-rattles of men muffled the chirps of birds and cicadas, while the stench of death and anesthetic permeated in the air.
A chest wound could indeed be considered inoperable, depending upon where the bullet landed. Adolphus thus may initially have been placed among the dying men when he arrived; but in the end, his injury was deemed operable. Likely fading in and out of consciousness, Adolphus would have been in a state of delirium as he was lifted up and brought into the barn for pre-op. If he was still conscious, he may have turned his head and observed the blood pooling up on the barn floor. With a wound such as his, however, it is doubtful he was perceptive of anything in the moment. After all, such bloody imagery was hardly a novel sight for a veteran soldier. After his pre-op, Adolphus would have been brought into the barn cellar for operation. As the blood of comrades resting on the barn floorboards above him seeped through the cracks to the cellar floor, the surgeons wrenched the ball out of Adolphus’s chest while he was under anesthetic, cleaned up his wound, applied bandages, and called for their next patient. He would be placed off to the side and checked on periodically for the remainder of the battle.
If Adolphus was conscious for the following day, July 3, he would have seen many familiar faces. The Garibaldians had been sent to assist General Sickles near the Peach Orchard in the late afternoon of July 2. One can imagine Adolphus’s face fill with pride when he heard of the Garibaldians’ valiant performance under heavy fire. Unwavering, they pushed back the Confederates who had captured the cannons of the 5th U.S. Artillery and retook the precious weapons, even after the immediate commander of the 3rd Brigade, Colonel Willard, was killed instantly by a shell. But that pride would have been supplanted by a deep sadness when he learned of the cost. By the time the sun dipped below the horizon on July 2, more than half of the 3rd Brigade’s soldiers had fallen. When the smoke began clearing from the battlefield on the end of July 3, the already undermanned Garibaldians had lost one in four men: ninety-five enlisted men and six officers had been killed or wounded (including the 39th’s commander, Major Hugo Hillebrandt), many of them likely ending up beside Adolphus at the George Spangler farm. If those immigrant soldiers who died had a moment to reflect before their deaths, did they believe that their sacrifice would help secure the future of their newly adopted country? Were they comforted by the thought that, surely their sacrifice would conclusively prove to nativists their loyalty to the Union and ultimately help to raise the maligned status of immigrants? Or did they rail at their predicament, becoming fearful in their moment of death that it all had been for nothing, that they had been no more than a meat shield in a war no different from the power struggles of Europe that would leave their families at the mercy of xenophobic nativists?
After the battle, Adolphus was brought to the better-provisioned Camp Letterman Hospital, located one mile northeast of Gettysburg. He lingered on through the monotony of hospital life, perhaps writing home when he could to bolster his family’s spirit, as well as his own. Whenever he could, he surely asked around for information on his comrades in the 39th, though the language barrier may have inhibited much in-depth conversation beyond a simple line or two. To hear of them would have allowed him to escape, if only in thought, from his hospital bed for but a moment, permitting Adolphus to envision himself once more among the ranks of his comrades with whom he had endured so much. But such moments of brief joy were interspersed between periods of depression and agony. It would have been impossible to not observe the death and suffering around him; as many as seventeen soldiers died on one bad day at Letterman Hospital, and the conditions were less than ideal. His health slowly deteriorated through the rest of July, worsening with the coming of August. Near the end, he likely knew his death was imminent. Unlike those killed instantly on the battlefield, mortally wounded soldiers were forced to confront their own inevitable death—a lonely death which, for many like Adolphus, would take place far from home or the loving touch of family, with an undetermined final resting place.
It is impossible to know what Adolphus reflected on during his last weeks. It is consoling to think that Adolphus was proud in the end, resolute that he had proved his manhood and contributed to the cause of liberalism around the world. But the twenty-two year old, left to his own thoughts as he lay dying, could have succumbed to a deep depression as he questioned the choices he had made in his short life. Regardless of how he felt in the moment, Adolphus had made an indisputable impact. German Republicans were correct in their understanding of the implications of the Civil War, rightfully considered one of the most significant wars in history. Having made the ultimate sacrifice for the Union, and for the fate of global democracy, Adolphus Wagner died on August 25, 1863.
On July 1, 1888, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the battle, thousands of soldiers once again converged at Gettysburg, but this time for remembrance and reconciliation. The State of New York had sponsored a monument to be dedicated to the unit’s sacrifices that day. Standing twenty feet high, with simple inscriptions all four sides noting the unit’s movements during the battle and casualty figures, the simple granite marker is adorned merely with the seal of the State of New York and the Second Corps’s traditional raised trefoil symbol. No grandiose descriptions or romantic martial imagery are present, and there is no record of how the Garibaldians reacted to the event, only the mention that a native-born New Yorker, Captain Frank M. Clarke, spoke at the 39th New York monument dedication. Perhaps his speech consisted of the usual jargon that praised the immigrant soldiers for their sacrifice and spoke of bonds stronger than ethnicity—some of which certainly applied to the service of men such as Adolphus, but would have raised an eyebrow or two amongst many of the unit’s rank and file, and amongst many immigrant-wary Americans of the 1860s.
As was true of the myriad other inter-sectional and intra-sectional divisions that had plagued the Union and the Confederacy throughout the war years, desires for post-war reconciliation, reunion, and an enduring public memory of each side’s unwavering unity and devotion to the war effort could often (at least on the surface) obscure the far less romantic realities, tensions, and divisions that existed both during and after the war. Twenty-five years after the war, the tide of nativism had barely been stymied. Immigrants in America still struggled for social mobility with the odds set against them. Despite the service of thousands of immigrants in the Civil War, nativist rhetoric still questioned their loyalty to the reunited Union. The men who made up the Garibaldians were mostly first- and second-generation immigrants. Many of them would always feel like foreigners in America. But their children and grandchildren, separated from their homelands and growing up in a society that would eventually come to more fully realize for immigrants the democratic ideals for which Adolphus and his comrades had fought, had no trouble assimilating into American society. They achieved what their forebears had fought for, and while their mother language may have been replaced by English, their language and customs have made an indelible mark on American society today. Across the country, the names of roads, towns, and cities serve as a reminder of the cultural influences of America’s past and of the contributions of even the most colorful groups of immigrants, such as the Garibaldians, to democracy’s victories in America and liberalism’s triumphs across the West.
Alduino, Frank W., and Coles, David J. “‘Ye come from many a far off clime; And speak in many a tongue’: The Garibaldi Guard and Italian-American Service in the Civil War.” Italian Americana 22, no. 1 (Winter 2004): 47-63. https://www.jstor.org/stable/29776913.
Catalfamo, Catherine. “The Thorny Rose: The Americanization of an Urban, Immigrant, Working Class Regiment in The Civil War” (PhD diss., University of Texas, Austin, 1989), https://museum.dmna.ny.gov/index.php/?cID=2184.
Eichner, Caitlin. “International Man of Mystery – Colonel Frederick George D’Utassy.” Shapell, 23 November 2020. https://www.shapell.org/behind-the-scenes/international-man-of-mystery-colonel-frederick-george-dutassy/.
“GARIBALDI GUARD.” New York Times (1857-1922), May 26, 1861: 8. https://www.proquest.com/cv_1485734/docview/91628993/A4EDB3AFA0464506PQ/6?accountid=2694
“General Blenker’s Division.” Philadelphia Inquirer (1860-1934), March 4, 1862: 1.
Kamphoefner, Walter D, and Wolfgang Helbich. Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006. https://gettysburg.primo.exlibrisgroup.com/permalink/01GETTYSBURG_INST/1kluq6j/cdi_askewsholts_vlebooks_9781469605418.
“Other Monuments.” Philadelphia Inquirer (1860-1934), July 2, 1888: 1.
“Proposition to Hang the Dutch Soldiers.” From the Knoxville Register, June 12, 1862. New York Times (1857-1922), June 22, 1862: 5.
“THE GARIBALDI GUARD.” Chicago Tribune (1860-1872), May 09, 1861: 0_2. https://www.proquest.com/cv_1485734/docview/175099911/A4EDB3AFA0464506PQ/5?accountid=2694
Wagner, Adolphus. 1850 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2022.
Wagner, Adolphus. 1860 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2022.
Wagner, Valentine. Baden, Germany, Lutheran Baptisms, Marriages, and Burials, 1783-1875 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2022.
Narrative and map by Cole Froehlich, Gettysburg College