- Date of birth: November 18, 1824
- Place of birth: Sinsheim, Baden, Germany
- Claim to fame: Prominent figure in the German-American immigrant community; Major General in the Union Army; led troops at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, Second Manassas, and in the Shenandoah Valley
- Political affiliations: Republican Party
- Date of death: August 21, 1902
- Place of death: New York City
- Final resting place: Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York
Franz Sigel is one of the best known foreign-born Union generals of the Civil War. Born in 1824 in Sinsheim, a village in modern-day southwestern Germany, he received a formal military education at the Karlsruhe Academy, graduating in 1843. Sigel began what appeared to be a promising military career with the Prussian army until a revolutionary movement erupted in 1848. Casting his lot with the revolutionaries, Sigel became a high-ranking military officer, leading campaigns against the Prussian army. The failure of the revolution led to Sigel’s exile from Germany and his immigration to the United States in 1852.
After he left Germany, Sigel settled in New York and emerged as a leading figure in the German immigrant community. Though his record on the battlefield in Europe had been questionable, German-Americans embraced him as a war hero. His public stance against anti-immigrant sentiments within the U.S. further endeared him to the community.
Though [Sigel's] record on the battlefield in Europe had been questionable, German-Americans embraced him as a war hero.
In 1857, Sigel moved to St. Louis, Missouri, to teach at the Deutsches Institut. He also became active in a local Turner Society—a German-based community organization that emphasized physical activities—and trained the group’s rifle drill team.
As the national debate over slavery raged, particularly over the future of Kansas statehood, Sigel became an active player in Republican Party politics. He drew German immigrants into the Republican fold, largely through a strong antislavery sentiment within their community. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Sigel and his Turner Society rifle team immediately volunteered to support Abraham Lincoln and the Union effort. His military experience and prominence within the German-American community led to a command of the Third Missouri Infantry. Supporting brigadier general Nathaniel Lyon, Sigel and his soldiers helped quash a group of secessionists in the St. Louis area in an incident known as the “Camp Jackson Affair.”
Receiving a promotion to brigadier general in early August 1861, Sigel played a conspicuous role in the first major battle in Missouri: Wilson’s Creek. There, on August 10, 1861, General Lyon attacked a larger Confederate force near Springfield, Missouri. Sigel led a portion of the Union force on a flanking maneuver to strike the Confederate position from the south. His opening attack, which included an artillery bombardment against the surprised Confederates, sent the enemy reeling. But he failed to deploy his troops effectively and a Confederate counterattack chased Sigel and his men from the field. Meanwhile, General Lyon was killed at the northern end of the battlefield. The setbacks forced Sigel and the Union army to leave southwest Missouri in Confederate hands.
The failure at Wilson’s Creek tarnished Sigel’s reputation among Union military leaders. He resigned after he lost his command in late-1861. Pressure from the German-American community led to his reinstatement to a command position in early 1862. At the Battle of Pea Ridge, March 7-8, 1862, Sigel commanded the 1st and 2nd Divisions of the Army of the Southwest. On the second day of the battle, he scored his greatest battlefield achievement of the war, commanding a successful attack on the Confederate line.
Sigel received a promotion to major general following Pea Ridge and was transferred east to command troops in Virginia. However, he performed poorly in the Shenandoah Valley against Confederate troops under Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and received criticism from superior officers. Sigel commanded a Union corps at the Battle of Second Bull Run in the summer of 1862. His troops performed reasonably well, but Robert E. Lee’s Confederates defeated the Union army and Sigel was one of many officers associated with the disaster.
Sigel took leave from his military duties in early 1863 to participate in Republican Party activities and lobby the War Department to increase the size of his corps. Frustrated by the negative response, and caught in a dispute with General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, Sigel did not return to a field command until early 1864, when he was placed over the Department of West Virginia. On May 15, 1864, Confederate forces attacked and defeated Sigel’s army at the Battle of New Market in the Shenandoah Valley. This loss, followed by his failure to protect northern Virginia from Confederate attacks, led to Sigel’s removal from field command in July 1864. He remained in the army until May 1865, but never led troops in combat again.
Following the war, Sigel moved to New York City, served in a variety of political appointments, and became a newspaper editor. He passed away in 1902, still well respected within the German-American community.
Sigel is largely remembered as a poor field commander during the Civil War who could not be dismissed easily due to his popularity within the large, pro-Union German immigrant population. The significance of Sigel to that community during the war was enshrined in song, often sung among Germans in the Union army, with a chorus that echoed, “I’m going to fight mit Sigel.”
Engle, Stephen D. Yankee Dutchman: The Life of Franz Sigel. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999.
Hess, Earl J., Richard W. Hatcher III, William Garrett Piston and William L. Shea. Wilson’s Creek, Pea Ridge, & Prairie Grove: A Battlefield Guide with a Section on Wire Road. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.
Hinze, David C. and Karen Farnham. The Battle of Carthage: Border War in Southwest Missouri, July 5, 1861. Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing Company, Inc., 2004.
Piston, William Garrett and Richard W. Hatcher III. Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
Shea, William L. and Earl J. Hess. Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1992.