The Generals and Admirals: Carl Schurz (1829-1906)
Union Army General Carl Schurz served in the Mountain Department, the Army of the Potomac, and the Mississippi Department. The well-educated and well-cultured Schurz had, what John Hay called "every quality of romance and dramatic picturesqueness." Schurz helped organize a Union cavalry unit in 1861 before he left to serve as Minister to Spain (1861-62). According to historians Harry J. Carman and Reinhard Luthin, "The problem of caring for Schurz...was most perplexing to Lincoln. 'Next to the difficulty about Fort Sumter,' one server in Washington wrote, 'the question as to what is to be done with Carl Schurz seems to bother the administration more than anything else. Schurz, who later became a crusader for civil service reform, was, in 1861, an indefatigable office seeker, fully appreciative of his own efforts in swinging tens of thousand of naturalized [German] citizens to the Republican standard in the recent campaign."1
Virtually all diplomatic assignments were rewards for Republican loyalty. Schurz had first been slated for Sardinia, but his revolutionary past convinced Secretary of State William H. Seward that his background would jeopardize his effectiveness. Placing him proved difficult. According to the New York Daily News, “The celebrated Mr. Carl Schurz appears to be a difficult child for the Administration to baptize.”2
Montgomery and Frank Blair helped arrange for Cassius Clay, who had been slated for Spain, to agree to be sent instead to Russia. The result pleased Schurz, who wrote: "Next to Mexico, Spain is the most important diplomatic post - and it is mine."3 In early 1862, Schurz was granted a leave to return from Madrid to the United States; he wanted an appointment as brigadier general in the army. After a turbulent ocean voyage, Schurz and his family arrived back in America. He wrote in his memoirs:
From New York I hurried at once to Washington, where I first reported to Mr. Seward at the State department. Owing to the presence of some foreign diplomats waiting upon the Secretary, we cut our conversation short with the understanding that we would discuss matters more fully at some more convenient time. I then went to call upon Mr. Lincoln at the White House. He received me with the old cordiality.
Although a "political general," Schurz served ably in battles such as the Second Bull Run and Gettysburg, but he and German soldiers were scapegoated for the Union defeat at Chancellorsville. He left his military post to campaign for President Lincoln in 1864.
Schurz was ambitious for Germans generally and himself in particular and could be impertinent with superiors. He occasionally disagreed with the President and committed his disagreements to writing. In his autobiography, Schurz recalled how the President responded in November 1862 to Schurz's repeated critical letters:
Two or three days after Mr. Lincoln's letter had reached me, a special messenger from him brought me another communication from him, a short note in his own hand asking me to come to see him as soon as my duties would permit; he wished me, if possible, to call early in the morning before the usual crowd of visitors arrived. At once I obtained the necessary leave from my corps commander, and the next morning at seven I reported myself at the White House. I was promptly shown into the little room up-stairs, which was at that time used for cabinet meetings - the room with the Jackson portrait above the mantel-piece - and found Mr. Lincoln seated in an arm chair before the open-grate fire, his feet in his gigantic morocco slippers. He greeted me cordially as of old and bade me pull up a chair and sit by his side. Then he brought his large hand with a slap down on my knee and said with a smile: 'Now tell me, young man, whether you really think that I am as poor a fellow as you have made me out in your letter!' I must confess, this reception disconcerted me. I looked into his face and felt something like a big lump in my throat. After a while I gathered up my wits and after a word of sorrow, if I had written anything that could have pained him, I explained to him my impressions of the situation and my reasons for writing to him as I had done. He listened with silent attention and when I stopped, said very seriously: 'Well, I know that you are a warm anti-slavery man and a good friend to me. Now let me tell you all about it. Then he unfolded in his peculiar way his view of the then existing state of affairs, his hopes and his apprehensions, his troubles and embarrassments, making many quaint remarks about men and things. I regret I cannot remember all. Then he described how the criticisms coming down upon him from all sides chafed him, and how my letter, although containing some points that were well founded and useful, had touched him as a terse summing up of all the principal criticisms and offered him a good chance at me for a reply. Then, slapping my knee again, he broke out in a loud laugh and exclaimed: 'Didn't I give it to you hard in my letter? Didn't I? But it didn't hurt, did it? I did not mean to, and therefore I wanted you to come so quickly. He laughed again and seemed to enjoy the matter heartily. 'Well, he added, 'I guess we understand one another now, and it's all right.' When after a conversation of more than an hour I left him, I asked whether he still wished that I should write to him. 'Why, certainly,' he answered; 'write me whenever the spirit moves you.' We parted as better friends than ever.5
At the end of July 1864, Schurz visited with President Lincoln at the Soldiers Home:
I called upon Mr. Lincoln on a hot afternoon late in July. He greeted me cordially, and asked me to wait in the office until he should be through with the current business of the day, and then to spend the evening with him at the cottage on the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home, which he occupied during the summer. In the carriage on the way thither he made various inquiries concerning the attitude of this and that public man, and this and that group of people, and we discussed the question whether it would be good policy to attempt an active campaign before the Democrats should have ‘shown their hand’ in their National Convention. He argued that such an attempt would be unwise unless some unforeseen change in the situation called for it. Arrived at the cottage, he asked me to sit down with on a lounge in a sort of parlor which was rather scantily furnished, and began to speak about the attacks made upon him by party friends, and their efforts to force his withdrawal from the candidacy. The substance of what he said I can recount from a letter written at the time to an intimate friend.
In early 1865, Schurz had trouble getting a new command. When Mrs. Lincoln returned from the Richmond front in early April 1865, Schurz accompanied her and later wrote his wife about the trip: "The first lady was overwhelmingly charming to me; she chided me for not visiting her, overpowered me with invitations, and finally had me driven to my hotel in her own state carriage. I learned more state secrets in a few hours than I could otherwise in a year."7
Schurz had a considerable ego. He once claimed: “I have done more than all the others to keep Lincoln on the right track.”8
Schurz had been a Wisconsin Republican leader and leader of German Americans who headed Republican efforts to attract immigrant voters in 1860. He first met Mr. Lincoln while campaigning for Republicans in Illinois in 1858. Schurz fled Germany to the U.S. in 1852 as a result of his role in 1848 Revolution -- which made him unacceptable as an American diplomat to most European countries.
Schurz later served as Washington correspondent for New York Tribune, an editor for the New York Evening Post and Harper's Weekly, Senator from Missouri (Republican, 1869-75) and Secretary of the Interior (1877-81). He sided with Liberal Republicans in 1872 and with Democrat Grover Cleveland in 1884. He was a reformer in many areas who favored civil service reform and equal rights for freed slaves.