Q&A with Author David Dixon


With the imminent release of David Dixon's Radical Warrior - August Willich's Journey from German Revolutionary to Union General (University of Tennessee Press), Derrick and I thought we would ask him a few questions about his experiences in writing the book as well as delve a bit into Willich the man.

BREAKING NEWS - David is offering signed copies of his book for $35 with Free Shipping! Hit the PayPal button at http://davidtdixon.com or email him: davedixonhistory@gmail.com or mail a check to 3082 Calle Pinon, Santa Barbara, CA 93105

DS: Tell us a bit about your background and interests in the Civil War.

DD: I worked for 35 years in marketing with Fortune 500 companies, but history was always my passion. In my forties, I earned my M.A. in History, intending to retire early to research and write full time. Four years ago, I retired and have been loving every moment since.


DS: While Willich is quite the character, he is not what we might consider a mainstream personality from the war - What was the inspiration for writing about him?

DD: Obscure characters with compelling stories are my niche. It is what my brand, B-List History, is all about. The success of my biography of Charles Anderson, The Lost Gettysburg Address, gave me an entrée into the tight-knit community of Civil War historians and enthusiasts. I developed a list of interesting B-List Civil War personalities as candidates for my next project and asked for feedback. Willich drew the most interest. Eric Wittenberg and Dave Powell in particular strongly urged me to take it on. Once I did a little research on the man and his incredible life story, I was hooked.


DL: Willich was a Union officer with military experience, but not from the Mexican War. What did his previous military life entail?

DD: Willich was part of the class of lesser nobility in Prussia called the Junkers. They were known for their military service and dominated the officer ranks. Willich’s father was a decorated Hussar officer. Willich trained at the military academy under Clausewitz and served 17 years in the Prussian artillery before getting caught up in the democratic revolutions that were sweeping Europe in 1848. He resigned and joined the revolutionaries, leading various volunteer corps in three rebellions during 1848 and 1849.


DS: What were the key challenges you faced when writing this book?

DD: Two challenges stand out. First, Willich left no collection of personal papers. This might have disqualified him as a subject for a book-length biography, but he published two pamphlets and was a newspaper editor for nearly two years; plus, the dozens of letters from him that exist in other collections are intimate and written at critical moments in his life. The second, and perhaps greatest challenge was the fact that I neither speak nor read German. Fortunately, I collaborated with two German colleagues: volunteer translator Andrea Herrde and German PhD candidate Felix Zimmermann, who is doing his dissertation on Willich. Felix tramped battlefields and other historic sites with me in Germany, France, and America while we shared research discoveries. I believe that the language barrier is the key reason why we do not have more scholarly biographies of immigrant figures in the Civil War period. German Fraktur print is excruciating to learn and nineteenth century Sütterlin script in handwriting nearly indecipherable to all but experts.


DL: Willich jumps around at the beginning of the war, being involved in several regiments. How did he come to the 32nd Indiana?

DD: Willich raised four companies and enlisted in the all-German Ninth Ohio Vol. Infantry immediately after Ft. Sumter fell. The Ninth’s Colonel, Robert McCook, acknowledged Willich (first adjutant, then major) as the de facto father of the regiment, calling himself “merely the clerk to a thousand Dutchmen.” The Ninth earned high praise in their first engagement at Rich Mountain in Western Virginia in July, 1861 and Indiana governor Oliver P. Morton named Willich colonel and commander of a new all-German regiment, the Thirty-Second Indiana, a few months later.


DL: The Battle of Rowlett’s Station is one of those early battles in Kentucky, often glossed over, if mentioned at all, in many histories of the war. What is the significance of this fight for the Union and for Willich?

DD: The “little affair at Munfordville,” as Gen. Don Carols Buell called it with pride, was the Thirty-Second Indiana’s first significant engagement. Willich’s men were successful in defending and ultimately rebuilding the Louisville and Nashville Rail Road bridge over the Green River to secure an important supply line. Although there were less than 100 casualties on either side, the battle is most noteworthy for the fact that a relatively small number of infantry soldiers mounted a successful defense against overwhelming numbers of Confederate cavalry, with the 50 men of Company G employing a hollow square formation to great effect. The Indianans killed Col. Benjamin F. Terry of Terry’s Texas Rangers and gave the Union a much-needed morale boost in December of 1861, a year that had not gone particularly well for the Federals.


DS: What do you hope your readers take away from Willich?

DD: Three things: First, they should recognize the critical role that recent immigrants played in Union victory. German-born Union volunteers alone numbered about 214,000, not to mention Irish-Americans and many others from foreign lands. Second, readers need to view the American Civil War as part of a much larger, international struggle for human rights, economic justice, and republican government. Finally, I hope readers gain a better understanding of the role that radical, transatlantic actors played in these campaigns for social justice and political freedom throughout the mid-nineteenth century. If Willich’s story intrigues readers, I would recommend Don Doyle’s The Cause of All Nations (2015) as a terrific summation of the international and transatlantic character of the American Civil War.


DS: What surprised you the most about Willich’s life?

DD: The depth and endurance of his commitment to social, political and economic justice and the personal sacrifices he made on their behalf. This man relinquished a promising military career, renounced his noble status, and was forced to abandon his homeland to support the causes he believed in. I found his constancy remarkable.


DL: Willich’s brigade was overrun at Stones River. How much blame do you think he deserves for not having his men ready, like Sheridan did, and considering the lines were not that far apart?

DD: I was pretty hard on Willich at Stones River in my first book. This came from a source that Peter Cozzens had cited in No Better Place to Die. When I read the actual source and compared it with official records, I found that not only was it a 35 year old recollection, but also the regular army officer who was so critical of Willich’s attitude on the morning of the battle had misremembered a quote from Willich as made on the morning of the initial Confederate attack when it that conversation actually occurred a few days earlier north of Murfreesboro.


Since Cozzens’s book came out in 1990, other sources have come to light, particularly Joe Reinhart’s excellent edited collection of letters from the Thirty-Second Indiana. These letters, along with other first-hand accounts, paint a very different picture of Willich in the hours leading up to the battle. That said, I do think Willich, his fellow brigadiers on the Union extreme right, and especially Richard W. Johnson and Alexander McCook, are all somewhat guilty of complacency. As you may know, Sheridan went to great lengths to wake McCook from his apparent torpor. Willich made three visits to Johnson during the late night and early morning hours before the battle, but could not convince him that their alignment was faulty, nor that his division should be up in arms at 4:00 a.m. Willich had his men up at that hour, but later received an order to cook breakfast. Sheridan, unlike Johnson, took the initiative and it could be argued, forestalled a complete rout on the first day of the battle.


DS: Often when I read a biography it becomes apparent that the author has become enamored with their subject and the writing becomes slanted to a more positive view of the subject. How were you able to maintain an even perspective of this rather complex and controversial man?

DD: Rooting for your subject is a cardinal sin for a biographer, in my opinion. While I admire Willich’s leadership talent, his military skills, and his steadfast character, I am critical of his sometimes impulsive and even reckless risking of his own life in certain combat situations, his stubbornness and aversion to compromise (which made him a terrible politician), his lack of ambition, and his failure to become more conversant in the English language. Like most people, he had character traits that were both strengths and weaknesses. For example, his enthusiasm, zeal and commitment to a cause made him a charismatic champion of workers and the oppressed; yet he was self-righteous and hung on to dreams of violent revolution in the German states much longer than most of his more pragmatic peers, like Carl Schurz. As you intimated, anyone whose nickname on two continents was “the reddest of the red” must have been a controversial figure. Humans are complex animals and I hope my readers will find that I treated this man as such, with his accomplishments and failures, his talents and his shortcomings, in full view.

We want to thank David for his time, and encourage readers to purchase a copy of Radical Warrior. It is the men on the brigade and divisional level of the war who were making the battlefield decisions that determine the outcomes of winning or losing, and Willich certainly fits that model as well as brings to us a most intriguing character of the Civil War.

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