BioFile - August von Willich, “Reddest of the Red ‘48ers”
A Prussian aristocrat, August von Willich was probably the only communist general in ths history of United States Army, and certainly the only general who was a personal acquaintance of Karl Marx. One of the host of immigrant volunteers who fought in the Civil War, he was the to serve the Union cause.
Scion of a Prussian baronial family with a long history of military service, Willich was born in 1810. He entered the Potsdam Cadet School at the age of 12, graduated to the Berlin Military Academy three years later, and emerged in 1828 as a junior officer in the Prussian Army. Wilich served in various garrisons, rising to captain in 1831. Finding his duties light, he began following the intellectual trends of the day and eventually made the acquaintance of Karl Marx. Becoming a marxian socialist, Willich's public criticisms of the prevailing social order led to a court martial, and in 1846 he was forced to resign from the army. Earning a living as a carpenter, he became increasingly active in the republican socialist movement. When, in 1847, revolution broke out in Germany and much of the rest of Europe, Willich promptly joined the revolutionary forces. When the revolution was crushed in 1849 he fled.
For several years he wandered from country to country. In 1853, like thousands of other “Red ‘48-ers,” he settled in the United States, dropped the aristocratic "von," and worked as a carpenter at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. In 1858 he became the editor of a radical German newspaper in Cincinnati, where his extreme political views earned him the nickname “Reddest of the Red.” When the Civil War broke out , Willich threw himself into the Union cause.
Willich quickly raised 1,500 leftist German volunteers, who soon formed the 9th Ohio, in which he was commisisoned a captain. Promoted to major, he distinguished himself in several small actions in West Virgnia. In August 1861 Willich was made colonel of the new 32nd Indiana, another German-American regiment. An excellent organizer, trainer, and disciplinarian, Willich quickly turned his command into a model regiment – a model Prussian regiment, that is – which it soon proved both on the drill field and the battlefield.
Habitually leading from the front, Willich distinguished himself at Shiloh and during the Corinth campaign. Promoted to brigadier general in July 1862, he led a brigade with considerable vigor at Perryville and Murfreesboro, where he was wounded and captured when his horse was killed. After being exchanged (a common practice in the Civil War), Willich commanded a brigade during the Tullahoma Campaign, at Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and during the Atlanta campaign, until he was seriously wounded at Resaca in May of 1864. Upon his recovery he was given a territorial command in the Ohio Valley, in which he served until the end of the war.
After the war Willich held several minor government posts in Ohio. In 1870 he returned to Prussia to offer his services in the war against France. He was refused, ostensibly because of his age – 60 – but more likely because the king – who like several of his generals was even older – remembered his earlier revolutionary career. Remaining in Europe for a time, Willich renewed his friendship with Karl Marx. He later settled in Ohio, where he died in 1878.