58th New York Infantry Regiment

A few days after the Battle of Antietam, on September 22, 1862, my mother’s great-grandfather, George Spiegel, a resident of New York City, enlisted as a private in Company E of the 58th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He was 23 years old at the time.

Monument to the 58th New York
Volunteer Infantry at Gettysburg

According to a report published by the New York Monuments Commission in 1902, the 58th New York was known as the Polish Legion. It was composed almost entirely of immigrant volunteers: Poles, Germans, Danes, Italians, Russians, and Frenchmen, most of whom were recruited in New York City in 1861. According to census records, George C Spiegel was born in 1838 in Sachsen, a region in eastern Germany. His unit was at three significant battles fought during the American Civil War – Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. Most of what is presented in this article came from the 1902 New York State Monuments Commission’s report on Gettysburg.

As I previously noted, finding the record of George’s service was intriguing when I discovered it almost a year ago. Yet, I felt more evidence was needed to link the George C Spiegel of 1870 Savannah, Georgia, to the George Spiegel of New York City in the 1860s. I still wanted to find a census or a marriage record that would place him in New York City, on Manhattan Island. Last week I found satisfactory evidence that George C Spiegel was living in New York City during the war and is, therefore, the person designated in the muster roll. This muster roll information is repeated in a book published in 1902 by the New York State Military Monuments Commission.

The period from the fall of 1862 to the summer of 1863 is probably one of the best documented in American history. George joined the 58th NY on September 22, 1862. This was five days after the ugly slaughter at the battle of Antietam. In October, the entire Regiment would be up for reenlistment. George joined at a time when the whole Army of the Potomac was going through a reorganization.

The XI Corps was composed primarily of German-American regiments led by foreign-born officers from Germany and Poland. From the beginning of the war, German units and other units made up of non-Germans did not mix well. In some regards, the Germans were treated worse than the Irish. In the Spring of 1862, Brig. Gen Carl Schurz wrote to President Lincoln that the German regiments were suffering from hunger, lack of tents and shoes, and were barely able to fight. Of the 10,000 men active in what was to become the XI Corps in March, less than 7000 were still present for duty in late June. Following an order to reorganize and Fremont’s resignation, Major-General Franz Sigel assumed command of the XI Corps on June 29, 1862. Many of the German soldiers could speak little English beyond “I fights mit Sigel” (“I’ll fight with Sigel”), which was their proud slogan.

At the Battle of Fredericksburg, the Army of the Potomac was commanded by Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside. The chain of command for XI Corps of the Army of the Potomac was: Corps commander – Brig. Gen. Julius Stahel, 3rd Division: Brig. Gen. Carl Schurz, 2nd Brigade: Col Włodzimierz Krzyżanowski, 58th New York: Lt. Col. Frederick Gelman.

Stahel, who replaced Sigel, was born in Hungary, Schurz was from Prussia, Krzyżanowski was Polish, and Frederick Gelman was a German.

Ambrose Burnside stubbornly refused to change his plans for Fredericksburg

After the Manassas campaign, the Army of the Potomac marched through Maryland on its way to Antietam, leaving the III Corps and Sigel’s Corps – now the XI Corps – in the defenses of Washington. The XI Corps was held in reserve and remained in camp near Fairfax and Centerville, Virginia, until the Battle of Fredericksburg, December 13, 1862, when it marched to Falmouth and back to Stafford Courthouse, where it went into winter quarters.

Though conditions in the camps were nearly primitive, the Germans were admired for the festive appearance of their camps during the Yuletide, with the little cabins arranged in a grid pattern with “streets” with names taken from a maps of Berlin and Vienna. During the rough winter, scarce rations and generally poor conditions led to sickness and death. General Halleck, the head of the war department, was accused of showing prejudice against “foreigners.” Two high-ranking and influential officers, Col. Gelman and Maj. Henkel resigned their commissions in protest and left the Regiment.

Cartoonist Thomas Nast first drew Santa Claus in January 1863, for Harper’s Weekly.

At the Battle of Chancellorsville, the Army of the Potomac was commanded by Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker. The chain of command for XI Corps of the Army of the Potomac was: Corps commander – Brig. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, 3rd Division: Brig. Gen. Carl Schurz, 2nd Brigade: Col Włodzimierz Krzyżanowski, 58th New York: Cpt Frederick Braun. After Braun was mortally wounded, the command fell to Cpt Emil Koenig.

General Howard, a New Englander with Puritan roots, was known as the “Christian General” because he tried to base his policy decisions on his deep, evangelical piety. When he tried to push his religious views on his subordinates, the anticlerical Germans soldiers, many of whom spoke no English, were resentful of their new leader and openly called for Sigel’s reinstatement.

When Spring arrived, the 58th, under the command of Capt. Braun broke camp at Stafford Courthouse on April 29, 1863, and made camp at Chancellorsville, where it was engaged in that disastrous battle.

On the evening of May 2, when Jackson made his famous attack on the XI Corps, he found the Corps in no position to repel a flank attack. However, repeated warnings of the impending danger had been transmitted from the Union pickets to XI Corps headquarters. Stonewall Jackson’s maneuver has come to be known as “Jackson’s Right Flank Attack.” This was a disaster for the Union, and the German Americans, who made up most of the soldiers in the XI Corps, came under a lot of flak for their perceived cowardice. In reality, the men of the XI Corps responded as best they could, considering that within minutes they were overwhelmed by Confederate forces.

This right-flanking attack has been described by historians and depicted in the last 30 minutes of the 3 ½ hour movie, Gods and Generals, as follows: “The men of the XI Corps were cooking their dinners around campfires when frightened deer, foxes, and rabbits burst out of some nearby woods, followed closely by Jackson’s twenty-six thousand Confederates shrieking their Rebel yells. The terrified Germans threw down their pots and pans and bolted for the rear. A third of them were taken prisoner. The rest managed to re-form and the Union line eventually held.” – Strausbaugh, John. City of Sedition (p. 256). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.

When the Confederates struck the right of the XI Corps around 5:15 PM, they encountered enough resistance from Devon’s division to check their swift advance long enough for Schurz’s division to change front and meet them. Schurz’s Regiment held the ground for a half hour or more and then, finding that the enemy overlapped their line on either flank, fell back, stopping from time to time to deliver their fire. The 58th New York shared in this fighting, during which the gallant Capt. Braun, who was in command, was shot and fell from his horse, mortally wounded. Capt. Emil Koening then assumed command. In this fighting, on the evening of May 2, the Regiment lost 31 killed, wounded, and missing out of 238 officers and men engaged.

Stonewall Jackson’s Right-Flank Attack on May 2, 1863 fragmented the XI Corps

The Regiment was not engaged during the following days of the battle, after which it recrossed the Rappahannock River with the Army and, marching in a rainstorm, accompanied the XI Corps back to its abandoned camps at Stafford, which were speedily reoccupied by the wet, tired and defeated troops.

Jackson’s Right Flank Attack as depicted in the 3.5 hour movie, Gods & Generals

According to Strausbaugh, “The North was shocked and outraged that the Army of the Potomac had once again snatched defeat from the jaws of sure victory. Recriminations flew in all directions. For having crumbled first, the “flying Dutchmen” of the Eleventh Corps and their “scandalous poltroonery” took the most abuse.”

The New York newspapers were particularly harsh on XI Corps in reporting on Chancellorsville. The New York Times declared them cowards. The New York Herald said they “fled like so many sheep before a pack of wolves.” Horace Greeley said, “if it be deemed too rigid to shoot them all, they may at least be decimated and then dissolved.”

In June 1863, thousands of Germans from throughout the East descended on Cooper Union Hall in midtown Manhattan. This was the largest gathering of Germans in American history. Their purpose in meeting was to protest what they called “Know-Nothing slanders” printed in American newspapers. They were demanding that Gen. Franz Sigel be reinstated. Remarkably, the New York newspapers had a change of heart and apologized to the German people for rash language. Both Democrats and Republicans realized the German-born soldiers were also voters; nevertheless, the War Department was unmoved and Sigel was given different command.

NYT’s page 4 apology to the Germans-born citizens of NYC – June 4, 1863

{See also Correspondence between Gen. Carl Schurz and Gen. Howard. Plus the NYT response to both men. PDF}

As far as the Army was concerned, the XI Corps remained the scapegoat for Hooker’s failures. The commander of the first division, Brig. Gen. Frank Barlow, a young Harvard graduate, wrote home to his family to express his “indignation & disgust at the miserable behavior of the XI Corps.”

Defeated but not discouraged, a month later, the men left their camps and started northward on the Gettysburg march as bravely and cheerfully as if it were their first campaign. Leaving Stafford on June 12, the Regiment, under the command of Lt. Col. Otto, marched that day to Hartwood Church; thence to Centerville, after a long, hard day’s march; thence to Goose Creek, where it encamped a week; the Potomac was crossed at Edward Sperry on the 25th, the column arriving at Jefferson, Maryland, late that night; next day, to Middletown, where a two days rest was had; and thence to Emmitsburg Maryland, where is the XI Corps, under the command of Gen. Howard, was resting on the morning of July 1, 1863, the day on which the battle opened at Gettysburg. At this time, the 58th numbered 11 officers and 211 enlisted men “present for duty,” as shown by the returns of the muster made the previous day.

At the Battle of Gettysburg, the Army of the Potomac was commanded by Maj. Gen. George Meade. The chain of command for XI Corps of the Army of the Potomac was: Corps commander – Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard, 3rd Division: Brig. Gen. Carl Schurz, 2nd Brigade: Col Włodzimierz Krzyżanowski, 58th New York: Lt. Col. August Otto. After Otto was wounded, the command fell to Cpt Emil Koenig.

During the night of June 30 – the night before the first day’s battle – Capt. Emile Koenig was ordered to take 100 men of the Regiment and do a reconnaissance in the direction of Creagerstown, where, as it was said, some of the enemies Calvary had been seen. After marching about 5 miles and not seeing any signs of the enemy, Capt. Koenig halted his command and allowed his men to rest and sleep. But he soon received a despatch ordering him to return with his detachment immediately, as the Corps had already started on a march to Gettysburg.

Continuing with the narrative described in the New York report on Gettysburg: It was 9 AM on July 1 when Koenig and his men, returning to Emmitsburg, arrived at the abandoned camping ground of the Regiment. Here he was joined by a squad of men belonging to the 58th who had been on picket during the night; with this picket detail and the 100 men already mentioned, Capt. Koenig had more than half of the Regiment with him. He promptly overtook the Corps, pushing on with all possible speed but was unable to do so, so he was ordered to march with the wagon train. A passing rain shower drenched the men and damaged the roads, but although the water came down in torrents, the storm did not extend to Gettysburg. Heavy artillery was heard about 4 miles from the town, and the men, leaving the train, pressed forward at a fast pace, arriving at Gettysburg about 3:30 PM. After some delay in finding the Corps, the detachment rejoined the Regiment and brigade on Cemetery Hill.

In the meantime, the remainder of the Regiment, composed of two companies, were engaged in the first day’s battle on the north side of town and had fallen back through the streets of Gettysburg to Cemetery Hill with the rest of the Army. In the evening, Lieut. Col. Otto was detailed by General Schurz, division commander, to act as his Chief of Staff, leaving the Regiment under Capt. Koenig.

Gen. Frank Barlow, commander of the First Division of XI Corps. also pushed his men out in front of the line to take the high ground of Blocher’s Knoll, now called Barlow’s Knoll. He left the XI Corps open to a blistering flank attack. Roughly half were killed, wounded, or captured, and the rest crumbled and fled. In one of the cannon batteries that Barlow exposed, the young lieutenant Bayard Wilkeson, son of New York Times special Sam Wilkeson, lost much of a leg to Rebel cannon fire. He tied his tourniquet to the stump and was carried off the field to die nearby.

Trying to rally what was left of his troops, Barlow was shot below the armpit. As two of his men lowered him from his horse, bullets ripped through his hat and nipped the tip of a finger. He lay in the grass as whooping Confederate soldiers raced past. A few stopped, carried him into nearby trees, and then left him, presumably thinking he was dying. Instead, he survived another months-long convalescence, steadfastly refusing to take any responsibility for the fiasco and blaming it all on the Germans of the XI Corps. He railed against them publicly and privately, writing to one friend, “I am convinced we can do nothing with these German [regiments]. They won’t fight & the whole history of the war has shown it. I will never set foot in the XI Corps again.” (Strausbaugh, John. City of Sedition (p. 270). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.)

During the second day’s battle, the 58th NY lay in support of the artillery on Cemetery Hill, which in the afternoon was heavily engaged with the Confederate batteries on Benders Hill. A perfect storm of cannon projectiles was hurled against the position of the XI Corps, the exploding fragments stealing death and wounds throughout the ranks of every Regiment. Adjutant Lewis Dietrich was struck by one of these missiles and killed, while several others in the Regiment were killed or wounded during the artillery fire. Among the mortally wounded were Captains Edward Antonieski and Gustav Stoldt.

58 NY, positioned on Cemetery Hill, was under heavy bombardment
on the 2nd day of Battle of Gettysburg

At dusk, Hayes’s Louisiana Brigade and Hoke’s North Carolina brigade assaulted the union position on East Cemetery Hill and, reaching a temporary success, charged up the slope and through the line of cannon in Wiedriech’s battery, driving the gunners from their pieces. Led by Gen. Schurz in person, the 58th and 119th New York hastened to the rescue of the artillery, but the assailants were repulsed without their help. As another attack was momentarily expected, the 58th was ordered to remain one of its companies under Lieut. Schwartz, were sent out as skirmishers to find where the enemy had retired.

On the morning of July 3, the Regiment moved to the right of the roads leading into Gettysburg (Baltimore Pike) and took a position behind a stone fence on the left of Weidrich’s battery. Lieut. Schwartz, with one company, was sent forward to take possession of the houses on the outskirts of the town. He did so, and during the day, the Confederate sharpshooters kept up a continuous fire on these houses, during which Miss Jenny Wade, who remained in her home, was killed while busily engaged in baking bread for the Union soldiers close by.

Around 1 PM, 150 to 170 Confederate guns began an artillery bombardment that was probably the largest of the war. To save valuable ammunition for the infantry attack that they knew would follow, the Army of the Potomac’s artillery, under the command of Brigadier General Henry Jackson Hunt, at first did not return the enemy’s fire. After waiting about 15 minutes, about 80 Union cannons opened fire. The Army of Northern Virginia was critically low on artillery ammunition, and the cannonade did not significantly affect the Union’s position.

Pickett’s Charge, 3rd Day, Gettysburg, 1863 — the preparatory artillery barrage

Following the repulse of Pickett’s Charge, the enemy having evacuated the town during the night of July 3, Schwartz sent out 10 of his men as a patrol to gain information. The citizens, by subtle signs, indicated the houses where some enemy might be found. On entering them, several Confederate sharpshooters were found asleep and captured together with some men who were awake. In withdrawing their troops, the Confederate officers had neglected to notify the sharpshooters. Shortly after, Lieut. Lauber, with 20 men, was sent into town, and these two squads returned with about 200 prisoners.

The Regiment joined in the pursuit of Gen. Lee’s defeated Army and, recrossing the Potomac on the 19th, returned to Virginia and the scenes of its former campaigns.

On the day before the battle of Gettysburg, the XI Corps reported 10,576 officers and men for duty; its loss in that battle was 368 killed, 1,922 wounded, and 1,511 captured or missing; total, 3,801, out of less than 9,000 engaged.

In September 1863, George was transferred to the Veterans Reserve Corps. At this time, the XI and XII Corps were ordered to Tennessee for the assistance of General Rosecrans’s Army, which was shut up in Chattanooga.

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